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Science and the environment > 12. Oceanic and Atmospheric Observing Systems Portfolio

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration should analyze its portfolio of observing systems to determine the extent to which unnecessary duplication may exist.

Why This Area Is Important

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in the Department of Commerce, is the federal agency responsible for managing and operating a large portfolio of observing systems. An observing system is a collection of one or more sensing elements that reside on a fixed or mobile platform, such as a buoy or satellite, which gathers data on or measures specific environmental variables or “parameters.” The nation depends on observing systems to help produce a wide variety of products, including weather forecasts and tsunami warnings. In November 2014, GAO examined a subset of NOAA’s entire observing system portfolio, 41 ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes observing systems which collect data on 75 environmental parameters, including sea surface temperature, salinity, and wave direction. NOAA estimates it spent an average of approximately $430 million annually to operate and maintain this subset of ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes observing systems in fiscal years 2012 through 2014. This is approximately 9 percent of NOAA’s total annual appropriations for these years.

What GAO Found

GAO found in November 2014 that NOAA had not assessed whether there is unnecessary duplication in its observing systems portfolio. As a result, the agency may be missing opportunities to reduce unnecessary duplication and achieve cost savings. Since 2010, some of NOAA’s planning documents have indicated a need to reduce systems costs by eliminating unnecessary duplication.[1] For example, one of the agency-wide objectives in NOAA’s 2010 strategic plan was to collect accurate and reliable data for the agency’s entire observing system portfolio. The plan said that pursuing this objective would include reducing the costs of observations through, among other things, “reducing unnecessarily duplicative capabilities.”[2] Similarly, NOAA’s 2012 implementation plan for its objective to produce accurate observation data included as a short-term outcome “[r]educed, consolidated, and/or closed observing sites and sensors based on quality and utility of observations supporting all NOAA needs.”[3] NOAA officials could not, however, provide examples of any observing sites that have been reduced, consolidated, or closed since the agency developed the 2012 implementation plan, even though these outcomes were to be accomplished in fiscal years 2012 or 2013.

GAO also found in November 2014 that multiple observing systems among the subset of NOAA’s ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes observing systems measure several of the same environmental parameters, as shown in the table below. For example, 21 of NOAA’s 41 ocean, coastal, or Great Lakes observing systems currently collect data on sea surface temperature.

Environmental Parameters Measured Most Often by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Ocean, Coastal, and Great Lakes Observing Systems 

Environmental parameter

Number of observing systems collecting data for this parameter

Sea surface temperature

21

Ocean surface winds: speed

14

Ocean temperature: profiles

12

Ocean surface winds: direction

11

Salinity: surface

11

Ocean currents: speed, surface

10

Ocean currents: speed, profiles

9

Atmospheric pressure: sea level

8

Ocean currents: direction, surface

8

Ocean currents: direction, profiles

7

Source: GAO analysis of NOAA documentation. | GAO‑15‑96

According to NOAA officials, there are a variety of reasons why multiple observing systems would measure the same parameters, such as to collect the data from different locations, at different times, or with different degrees of accuracy, or to maintain continuity of data collection in the event that one system failed. In addition, NOAA officials told GAO they do not believe unnecessary duplication in data collection in the agency’s observing systems portfolio is a significant problem. NOAA officials, however, could not provide documentation of any analysis of whether unnecessary duplication exists in the data collected by its ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes observing systems. Without analyzing whether there is unnecessary duplication or opportunities to reduce or consolidate observations, NOAA cannot know if there are opportunities to reduce costs associated with its observing systems portfolio. In NOAA’s written comments on the report, the agency said it is developing the NOAA Observing Systems Integrated Analysis (NOSIA) model, which may provide them with the capability to determine whether unnecessary duplication exists.



[1]According to NOAA officials, duplication in data collection can sometimes be necessary if the data are needed to meet a critical mission need, such as providing a back-up to the primary data source if it failed.

[2]NOAA, NOAA’s Next-Generation Strategic Plan (Silver Spring, Md.: Dec. 2010).

[3]NOAA, NGSP Implementation Plan: Enterprise Objective: Accurate and Reliable Data from Sustained and Integrated Earth Observing Systems FY 2013-2019 (Nov. 26, 2012).

Actions Needed

To help identify opportunities to reduce unnecessary duplication and achieve cost savings in NOAA’s observing systems portfolio, GAO recommended in November 2014 that the Secretary of Commerce should

  • direct the NOAA Administrator to analyze the extent to which unnecessary duplication exists in NOAA’s portfolio of observing systems.

Because NOAA has not yet analyzed its observing systems portfolio, it is difficult to estimate the potential cost savings associated with any unnecessary duplication that may exist.  As a result, GAO cannot quantify potential financial benefits associated with the recommended action.

How GAO Conducted Its Work

The information contained in this analysis is based on findings from the product in the related GAO product section. For that report, to identify the environmental parameters most often measured, GAO analyzed the number of environmental parameters measured by each of NOAA’s 41 ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes observing systems. To determine annual operations and maintenance costs for these systems, GAO reviewed documentation collected by NOAA, interviewed agency officials, and took steps to assess the reliability of the cost data. GAO also reviewed agency documentation (such as strategic and implementation plans) and interviewed NOAA officials to determine the extent to which NOAA had taken steps to assess whether unnecessary duplication exists in its observing systems portfolio.

Table 8 in appendix V lists the observing systems GAO identified that might have similar or overlapping objectives, provide similar services, or be fragmented across government missions.  Overlap and fragmentation might not necessarily lead to actual duplication, and some degree of overlap and duplication may be justified.

Agency Comments & GAO Contact

GAO provided a draft of its November 2014 report to the Department of Commerce and NOAA for comment. In its written comments, NOAA, providing comments on behalf of the Department of Commerce, generally agreed with GAO’s recommendation to analyze the extent to which unnecessary duplication exists in NOAA’s portfolio of observing systems.

GAO provided a draft of this report section to the Department of Commerce and NOAA for review and comment. The Department of Commerce and NOAA did not provide comments on this report section.

For additional information about this area, contact Anne-Marie Fennell at (202) 512-3841 or fennella@gao.gov.

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