Fifteen years after Congress approved legislation requiring the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to develop a public health situational awareness network to facilitate information sharing about public health threats, the agency has made little progress toward making that project a reality.


The Government Accountability Office (GAO) – the Federal government’s watchdog agency – wants to change that with a new series of recommendations for HHS to get going on the project.


GAO said in a recent report that HHS has made “limited progress” toward building the network initially mandated in the Pandemic and All Hazards Preparedness Act in 2006 – which would allow public health officials to access real-time information about emerging threats.


The network could have been used to provide vital information to better manage a timely COVID-19 response, the report says.


In 2013 Congress doubled down on requirements for the network, set new deadlines, and asked Federal officials to outline specific activities for incorporating data into the new network. HHS has missed several deadlines since then for the network, which was supposed to be completed by March 2015.


GAO attributed the lack of significant progress in developing the network to the department’s failure to prioritize development of the network, and not putting in place an appropriate management and governance structure.


“Such a structure would include a lead operational division with defined roles and responsibilities for the implementation of statutory requirements, and an organization to provide oversight of these efforts,” the report noted.


GAO made 12 recommendations to HHS to prioritize development of the public health situational awareness and biosurveillance network.


HHS concurred with 10 of the 12 recommendations. The department stated that the remaining two were under review. Those two relate to identifying the office responsible for overseeing the completion of the activities performed by the lead operational division, and identifying and documenting information-sharing challenges and lessons learned from COVID-19.


During GAO’s review that led to the new report, HHS began drafting a work plan intended to address the development of a network. However, the agency has not provided a time frame for completing the work plan, GAO said.

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Lisbeth Perez
Lisbeth Perez
Lisbeth Perez is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.