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U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2020 Compliance with the Geospatial Data Act

OIG reviewed USDA’s compliance with the covered agency responsibilities outlined in the Geospatial Data Act.

Audit Report: 50501-0023-12
Published: 09/29/2020
View Report PDF
Fast Facts

The Federal Government recognized the need to organize and coordinate the collection and management of geospatial data since 1990.  In that year, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) revised Circular A-16.  In the past, Congress recognized the challenge of coordinating and sharing geospatial data from the local, county, and State level to the National level.  Until enactment of the Geospatial Data Act (GDA), the executive branch had led nearly all efforts to better coordinate and share geospatial data within the Federal Government.  The GDA was signed into law on October 5, 2018.  The purpose of the Act is to minimize duplication of geospatial activities across agencies and improve collaboration, reduce waste, codify previous executive actions, and give Congress an oversight role for the Federal Government’s multibillion dollar investments in geospatial data.

The GDA applies to agencies defined in the Act, referred to as “covered agencies,” that collect, produce, acquire, maintain, distribute, use, or preserve geospatial data on paper or in electronic form to fulfill the mission of the Executive department, either directly or through a relationship with another organization.  USDA is 1 of 15 covered executive Departments.  Currently, four USDA agencies participate in the management of National Geospatial Data Assets (NGDA) datasets: the Farm Service Agency, Forest Service, National Agricultural Statistics Service, and Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Additionally, the Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO) is responsible for providing executive leadership, oversight, and accountability for geospatial data and capital assets.  To fulfill this responsibility, USDA appointed a geospatial information officer within the OCIO Enterprise Geospatial Management Office to oversee, coordinate, and facilitate USDA internal and external coordination and implementation of geospatial policies, directives, requirements, and data management.  USDA’s Enterprise Geospatial Management Office provides enterprise-level leadership to align geospatial strategic planning, policy, tactical implementation, and operational capability with USDA’s mission requirements and performance goals.  Its key focus areas are ensuring agency geospatial products and services are represented and managed as enterprise assets, enabling equal access to shared services, and conducting public service innovation prototypes.

USDA appointed the geospatial information officer to serve as a member of the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) steering committee.  The FGDC acts as the lead entity in the executive branch for the development, implementation, and review of policies, practices, and standards relating to geospatial data.  In addition, OMB has a role in geospatial guidance.  OMB and FGDC lead the development and management of operational decision-making for the National Spatial Data Infrastructure strategic plan and geospatial data policy, designate NGDA data themes, establish and maintain geospatial data standards, conduct reviews of covered agencies’ compliance with geospatial data standards, and ensure GeoPlatform operations are in accordance with the Act.  The GDA requires OMB and FGDC to establish standards for NGDAs and develop additional standards as needed, only establishing new standards if existing standards are not sufficient.  However, the GDA does not explicitly explain whether the existing body of Geospatial standards endorsed and issued by FGDC prior to the Act continue to be in effect under the Act.  As of August 2020, the FGDC and OMB have not provided clarification to covered agencies on the implementation of the Act explaining which, if any, standards to follow according to the Act.  Furthermore, the FGDC has expressed the need for clarification on whether the GDA applies to both NGDAs as well as geospatial systems not classified as NGDAs. In addition to the geospatial standard requirements outlined within the Act, the GDA also establishes covered agency responsibilities.  These responsibilities are to be fulfilled by the covered agency and are not predicated on needing additional guidance from bodies outside of the agency’s control.

As a requirement of the GDA, the FGDC is responsible for developing the GeoPlatform to provide access to geospatial data and metadata to the general public.  The GeoPlatform is also designed to promote data sharing and collaboration. As of July 2020, the FGDC reported 178 NGDAs across 11 Federal departments and agencies (including USDA) through the GeoPlatform.  A geospatial dataset can be designated as an NGDA if it meets one of the following elements:

• used by multiple agencies or with agency partners such as State, Tribal, and local governments;
• applied to achieve Presidential priorities as expressed by OMB;
• required to meet shared mission goals of multiple Federal agencies; or
• expressly required by statutory mandate.

Not all Federal geospatial datasets are NGDAs; as such, the FGDC has expressed the need for clarification on whether the GDA applies to both NGDAs and geospatial datasets not classified as NGDAs.  Due to the uncertainty of the applicability of the law, our review focused on the 16 USDA approved NGDA datasets.

OIG’s initial objectives were to assess:  (1) USDA’s compliance with the standards for geospatial data, including metadata for geospatial data established under section 757; (2) USDA’s compliance with the requirements under subsection 759(a); and (3) USDA’s compliance with the limitation on the use of Federal funds under section 759A.  However, we ultimately limited the audit to an assessment of USDA’s compliance with the covered agency responsibilities specific to Objective 2 in accordance with the recommended audit approach issued by the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency.

The Office of Inspector General (OIG) found that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) was not compliant with all the covered agency responsibilities outlined in the Geospatial Data Act.  Specifically, USDA did not comply with 3 of the 13 responsibilities, which include the development of a geospatial strategy; using geospatial standards, including metadata standards; and having approved National Archives and Records Administration records schedules for geospatial datasets.  Overall, this occurred due to the lack of USDA-specific Geospatial Data Act guidance.  As a result, USDA is not completely fulfilling its role of improving Federal management, coordination, and utilization of geospatial data, which can negatively impact infrastructure and emergency response capabilities nationwide.

USDA generally concurred with our two recommendations. However, further action from OCIO is needed before management decision can be reached for each recommendation.