USDA ‘Did Not Establish Performance Goals’ For its Broadband Program, Watchdog Says

Huber & Starke/Getty

A report from the Government Accountability Office found that the Agriculture Department’s ReConnect program lacks set performance objectives and a detailed fraud mitigation framework.

The Agriculture Department needs to set specific performance goals for its program working to expand internet service in rural communities—as well as improve its fraud assessment efforts—to ensure that federal funds are helping to narrow the nation’s broadband gap, according to a Government Accountability Office report released on Wednesday.

The report examined USDA’s ReConnect program, which “has awarded millions of dollars in grants and loans to broadband providers for expanding service in rural areas” since 2019, according to GAO. ReConnect is one of several broadband-focused initiatives administered by USDA, in addition to other programs managed by federal agencies—including the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration—that are designed to increase broadband accessibility across the country.

As the report noted, USDA “uses information from ReConnect to support its agency-wide performance goals,” but the department “has not identified performance goals that would define the specific results it expects ReConnect to achieve.”

“For example, during the first two funding rounds, USDA used ReConnect data to support two department-wide performance goals—one on the number of new subscribers resulting from projects funded by ReConnect and other USDA telecommunications programs, and one on private investment resulting from certain USDA-funded projects,” the report noted. “However, USDA did not establish performance goals that would define the specific results it expected ReConnect to achieve.” 

In addition to a lack of defined performance goals and measures, the report found that USDA’s oversight of the program “aligns with some but not all of the selected leading practices in GAO’s fraud risk framework.” Although USDA officials told GAO, for example, that the office of its Chief Risk Officer was the designated entity for overseeing fraud risk management activities, the report found that “USDA officials have not documented this office's responsibilities specifically for fraud risk management.”

“In addition, USDA officials have identified and considered specific fraud risks in ReConnect, but they have not conducted a fraud risk assessment for the program,” the report added. “Documenting the office of the Chief Risk Officer's responsibilities for fraud risk management and conducting a fraud risk assessment would help USDA ensure that it routinely identifies and mitigates all potential fraud risks to the ReConnect program.”

To enhance ReConnect’s effectiveness and ensure that program funding is not being misappropriated, GAO recommended that USDA officials “establish program specific performance goals and use them to manage the program,” outline the responsibilities for officials tasked with overseeing fraud risk management activities and “conduct and document a fraud risk assessment.” USDA agreed with all three of the recommendations. 

The review—published on Oct. 31 but not publicly released until Wednesday—was requested by Republican lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, including Ranking Member Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash. The report’s release comes as congressional lawmakers continue to work on streamlining the management and funding of programs, like ReConnect, that are working to narrow the nation’s digital divide. 

On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of senators on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee—led by Sens. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., and Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the panel’s Communications, Media and Broadband subcommittee—introduced the Rural Internet Improvement Act to, in part, streamline the ReConnect program and better direct the flow of broadband-related funding. 

“Access to these broadband services is typically determined by where you live, which often leaves rural communities in the dust,” Thune said in a statement. “Our bipartisan legislation would help bridge the digital divide by improving USDA’s ReConnect program to ensure its funding goes to truly unserved areas.”