Department of Energy:

Fundamental Reassessment Needed to Address Major Mission, Structure, and Accountability Problems

GAO-02-51: Published: Dec 21, 2001. Publicly Released: Jan 8, 2002.

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The Department of Energy (DOE) manages the nation's nuclear weapons production complex, cleans up the environmental legacy from the production of nuclear weapons, and conducts research and development into both energy and basic science. DOE launched several reforms in the 1990s to realign its organizational structure, reduce its workforce, strengthen contracting procedures by competitive awards practices, streamline oversight of activities, and delegate some responsibilities to the private sector. Despite these reforms, GAO found that management weaknesses persist because DOE's reforms were piecemeal solutions whose effect has been muted by three impediments to fundamental improvement: the department's diverse missions, dysfunctional organizational structure, and weak control of accountability. Management weaknesses and performance problems will likely continue unless DOE addresses these impediments in a comprehensive fashion.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: DOE did not agree that an inability to manage its diverse missions is a fundamental cause of past performance issues. DOE cited other federal agencies, such as the Treasury Department, as capable of managing diverse missions. In addition, DOE claimed that entities within Cabinet Departments do not need common cultures and, in fact, diverse cultures are valued because they provide different perspectives and functions. DOE also cited the synergies achieved among its national laboratories, even though some laboratories report to the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and others to non-NNSA offices. Finally, DOE stated that "were GAO's approach to be the standard, all Cabinet Departments would be dismantled, and all agencies would report directly to the President."

    Recommendation: To address its diverse mission and organizational issues, the Secretary of Energy should, in consultation with the Office of Management and Budget and other federal agencies that might gain or lose missions if the Department of Energy (DOE) were reconstructed, develop a strategy for determining whether some missions would be managed better if located elsewhere, combined with other agencies, or privatized. Once this is accomplished, the Secretary should report his findings and a proposal to realign the various missions to Congress.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE agreed with GAO's recommendation that immediate steps should be taken to improve the department's accountability. DOE stated that it has instituted more effective performance measurement for the department's federal and non-federal activities. More specifically, it cites efforts by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to streamline and clarify the chain of command, and to simplify the Headquarters-field management structure. DOE claims that NNSA has integrated strategic goals into its budget process, established principles that will clarify roles and responsibilities, and developed plans to revitalize federal staffing using the Excepted Service Authority granted by the NNSA Act. For example, DOE states that it has implemented a pilot program to streamline oversight and increase accountability in the contracting process. GAO is aware of other efforts, not mentioned by DOE, to improve contracting in the department's Office of Science and to study the cost of shifting to external regulation of safety and health functions at the national laboratories reporting to this office.

    Recommendation: Pending the results of a comprehensive review of DOE's missions, the Secretary of Energy should take immediate steps to improve the department's accountability. Such steps should include, for example, ensuring that all contract-reform initiatives already under way are completed, holding staff and contractors more strictly accountable for performance, ending self-regulation of worker and nuclear safety in its facilities, and developing a more technically competent workforce.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy


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