Environmental Protection Agency:

To Better Fulfill Its Mission, EPA Needs a More Coordinated Approach to Managing Its Laboratories

GAO-11-347: Published: Jul 25, 2011. Publicly Released: Aug 24, 2011.

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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) operates 37 laboratories to provide the scientific foundation for its mission. Over the past 20 years, independent evaluations have identified problems with the laboratories' operations and management and called for improved planning, coordination, and leadership, as well as consolidation of laboratories. In its 2012 budget, EPA requested $2 million for another independent study of its laboratories. GAO was asked to examine the extent to which EPA (1) has addressed the findings of prior independent evaluations; (2) uses an agencywide, coordinated approach to manage its laboratory infrastructure and whether its new study will achieve stated cost savings and laboratory improvement goals; and (3) uses a comprehensive planning process to manage its laboratory workforce. GAO reviewed agency documents and independent evaluations, visited EPA laboratories, interviewed agency officials, and examined agency databases.

EPA has not fully addressed the findings and recommendations of independent evaluations of its science activities. For example, EPA has yet to implement an overarching issue-based planning process integrating and coordinating scientific efforts throughout the agency, including the important work of its 37 laboratories as recommended by a 1992 independent evaluation. The agency also has not fully addressed recommendations from a 1994 independent evaluation to consolidate or realign its laboratory facilities and workforce, although several studies found that such action could eliminate unnecessary duplication and improve planning and coordination. In addition, although three independent evaluations identified weaknesses in EPA's scientific leadership, the agency has not appointed a top science official with responsibility and authority over all of the agency's research, science, and technical activities, including integrating and coordinating the science activities conducted by its laboratories. Instead, these activities remain fragmented and largely uncoordinated, reflecting the independent organizational and management structures of the 15 senior officials charged with managing the scientific work performed at each laboratory. EPA has not taken an agencywide, coordinated approach to managing its scientific efforts and related facilities as part of an interrelated portfolio of facilities, as recommended by the National Research Council. As a result, EPA cannot be assured that it is allocating its limited capital improvement funds most appropriately. EPA officials said they attempt to spread capital improvement funds equitably across the 15 organizations that maintain the laboratories, but this does not ensure that all mission-critical laboratory assets are functioning at an optimal or acceptable level. In 2008, EPA reported that because the laboratories operate independently, opportunities for increased resource sharing and operating efficiencies are inhibited. EPA also has not finalized the scope and methodology to be used for its proposed new laboratory study, and therefore, it is unclear whether the proposed study will produce meaningful change or fulfill the envisioned cost-savings targets. In addition, EPA lacks complete and reliable data about use of laboratory space, condition, and operating costs, and therefore cannot be assured of making informed decisions about capital investments or the disposition of its real property assets. EPA does not use a comprehensive planning process for managing its laboratories' workforce. To the extent that workforce planning is performed for the laboratories, it is done independently by each of the 15 separate organizations that maintain laboratories. EPA also lacks basic information on its laboratory workload and workforce, including demographic data on the number of federal and contract employees currently working in its 37 laboratories. Such information is essential to identify, on an agencywide basis, any critical skill gaps in its current workforce and the workforce it may need in the future. Without such information, EPA cannot successfully undertake succession planning and management to help the organization adapt to meet emerging and future needs. GAO recommends, among other things that EPA develop a coordinated planning process for its scientific activities and appoint a top-level official with authority over all the laboratories, improve physical and real property planning decisions, and develop a workforce planning process for all laboratories that reflects current and future needs of laboratory facilities. EPA generally agreed with the findings and recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: In October 2011, EPA established a working group, but has not yet developed an overarching issue-based planning process, as GAO recommended in July 2011. EPA established an executive working group in 2011 for the EPA laboratory charged with recommending improvements in the management of the laboratories in response to GAO's recommendation. EPA officials said these improvements will include the development of an overarching planning process that reflects the collective goals, objectives, and priorities of the laboratories' scientific activities. However, until EPA develops an overarching issue-based planning process that reflects the collective goals, objectives, and priorities of the laboratories' scientific activities, the agency risks having potentially overlapping laboratory activities and missing opportunities to achieve efficiencies through shared workforce expertise.

    Recommendation: To improve cohesion in the management and operation of EPA's laboratories, the Administrator of EPA should develop an overarching issue-based planning process that reflects the collective goals, objectives, and priorities of the laboratories' scientific activities.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: While EPA has taken steps toward establishing a top-level science official with some responsibilities to coordinate and oversee the laboratories, the agency has not yet given this official the authority to make management decisions regarding scientific activities for the laboratories, as GAO recommended in July 2011. In 2012, EPA expanded the responsibilities of the agency's science adviser to coordinate, oversee, and make recommendations to EPA's Administrator regarding major scientific activities across the agency, including the work of all regional, program, and Office of Research and Development laboratories. While EPA has expanded the responsibilities of the science adviser to coordinate and oversee the laboratories, the agency has not granted the science adviser the authority to make management decisions. For example, the laboratories do not report directly to the science adviser; instead, they continue to operate under the direction of 15 different senior officials using 15 different organizational and management structures. In addition, the science adviser does not have authority over laboratory budgets, workforce, and infrastructure. EPA also removed the science adviser's responsibility of serving as the head of the Office of Research and Development, thereby avoiding a potential conflict of responsibilities in which the science adviser's decisions could potentially favor the Office of Research and Development laboratories over the regional and program laboratories. While these actions are a step forward, unless the science adviser has management authority over laboratory budgets, workforce, and infrastructure, these activities will likely remain fragmented and largely uncoordinated.

    Recommendation: To improve cohesion in the management and operation of EPA's laboratories, the Administrator of EPA should establish a top-level science official with the authority and responsibility to coordinate, oversee, and make management decisions regarding major scientific activities throughout the agency, including the work of all program, regional, and ORD laboratories.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: EPA contracted with an architecture and engineering firm to study its laboratories and established a working group to improve laboratory facility data and recommend improvements to the management of the laboratories, among other things, but it is too soon to tell if individual laboratory facilities are being managed as an interrelated portfolio of facilities, as GAO recommended in July 2011. In September 2012, EPA signed a 5-year contract with an architecture and engineering firm to study how well EPA's organization and facilities are aligned with the agency's mission and strategic needs now and during the next 10 years. The contract states that the principal focus of this study will be laboratory programming, energy usage evaluations, and facility condition assessments. However, specific tasks for the contract have not been decided yet. In 2011, the agency formed an executive working group for the EPA laboratory charged with recommending improvements in the management of the laboratories and improving laboratory facility and operating costs data. According to agency officials, the working group will determine the type of data it should collect and define terms consistently so that there are compatible definitions across the laboratories. The working group is working to establish project tasks and fiscal year 2013 milestones for the tasks it is charged with completing. EPA officials said they will wait to make facility planning decisions until the contracted study of the laboratories is finalized and the working group completes its work. Until these efforts result in the management of laboratories as an interrelated portfolio, the agency risks missing opportunities to reduce costs associated with maintaining a footprint of 170 laboratory buildings and facilities that support organizations with potentially overlapping functions, facility, and equipment needs.

    Recommendation: To improve cohesion in the management and operation of EPA's laboratories, the Administrator of EPA should improve physical infrastructure and real property planning and investment decisions by managing individual laboratory facilities as part of an interrelated portfolio of facilities.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: While EPA contracted with an architecture and engineering firm to study its laboratories and established a working group to make recommendations for improving facility and operating costs data, among other things, it is too soon to tell if these actions will yield up-to-date master plans and facility information and if EPA's analysis of the use of space is based on objective benchmarks, as GAO recommended in July 2011. In September 2012, EPA signed a 5-year contract with an architecture and engineering firm to study how well EPA's organization and facilities are aligned with the agency's mission and strategic needs now and during the next 10 years. The contract states that the principal focus of this study will be laboratory programming, energy usage evaluations, and facility condition assessments. However, specific tasks for the contract have not been decided yet. In 2011, the agency formed an executive working group for the EPA laboratory charged with recommending improvements in the management of the laboratories and improving laboratory facility and operating costs data. According to agency officials, the working group will determine the type of data it should collect and define terms consistently so that there are compatible definitions across the laboratories. The working group is working to establish project tasks and fiscal year 2013 milestones for the tasks it is charged with completing. EPA officials said they will wait to make facility planning decisions until the contracted study of the laboratories is finalized and the working group completes its work. Until EPA improves physical infrastructure and real property planning and investment decisions by ensuring that master plans and other facility information are up to date and that its analysis of the use of space is based on objective benchmarks,the agency risks missing opportunities to reduce costs associated with maintaining a footprint of 170 laboratory buildings and facilities that support organizations with potentially overlapping functions, facility, and equipment needs.

    Recommendation: To improve cohesion in the management and operation of EPA's laboratories, the Administrator of EPA should improve physical infrastructure and real property planning and investment decisions by ensuring that master plans are up-to-date and that analysis of the use of space is based on objective benchmarks.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: While EPA contracted with an architecture and engineering firm to study its laboratories and established a working group to make recommendations to improve facility and cost data, among other things, it is too soon to tell if these actions will improve the completeness and reliability of operating cost and other data needed to manage EPA's real property and report to external parties, as GAO recommended in July 2011. In September 2012, EPA signed a 5-year contract with an architecture and engineering firm to study how well EPA?s organization and facilities are aligned with the agency?s mission and strategic needs now and during the next 10 years. The contract states that the principal focus of this study will be laboratory programming, energy usage evaluations, and facility condition assessments. However, specific tasks for the contract have not been decided yet. In 2011, the agency formed an executive working group for the EPA laboratory charged with recommending improvements in the management of the laboratories and improving laboratory facility and operating costs data. According to agency officials, the working group will determine the type of data it should collect and define terms consistently so that there are compatible definitions across the laboratories. The working group is working to establish project tasks and fiscal year 2013 milestones for the tasks it is charged with completing. EPA officials said they will wait to make facility planning decisions until the contracted study of the laboratories is finalized and the working group completes its work. Until EPA improves physical infrastructure and real property planning and investment decisions by improving the completeness and reliability of operating cost and other data needed to manage EPA's real property and report to external parties,the agency risks missing opportunities to reduce costs associated with maintaining a footprint of 170 laboratory buildings and facilities that support organizations with potentially overlapping functions, facility, and equipment needs.

    Recommendation: To improve cohesion in the management and operation of EPA's laboratories, the Administrator of EPA should improve physical infrastructure and real property planning and investment decisions by improving the completeness and reliability of operating-cost and other data needed to manage its real property and report to external parties.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  6. Status: Open

    Comments: EPA established a working group in October 2011 to recommend improvements in the management of the laboratories, including the improvement of data, but has not yet developed a comprehensive workforce planning process for all laboratories that is based on reliable workforce data, as GAO recommended in July 2011. EPA officials said one of the early actions of the working group will be to determine the type of data it should collect and define terms consistently so that there are compatible definitions across the laboratories. The working group is also preparing other project tasks and fiscal year 2013 milestones for the tasks it is charged with completing. Until EPA's working group develops a comprehensive workforce planning process for all laboratories based on reliable workforce data, the agency risks continuing to miss opportunities to work across organizational boundaries to integrate, share, or coordinate laboratory workforces that perform potentially overlapping functions.

    Recommendation: To improve cohesion in the management and operation of EPA's laboratories, the Administrator of EPA should develop a comprehensive workforce planning process for all laboratories that is based on reliable workforce data and reflects current and future agency needs in overall number of federal and contract employees, skills, and deployment across all laboratory facilities.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  7. Status: Open

    Comments: While EPA has taken steps toward improving cohesion and efficiency in the management and operation of its laboratories by contracting for a study of its laboratories, it is too early to tell if this study will include alternative approaches for organizing the laboratories' workforce and infrastructure, including options for sharing and consolidation, as GAO recommended in July 2011. In September 2012, EPA signed a 5-year contract with an architecture and engineering firm to study its laboratories. The contract states that the principal focus of this study will be laboratory programming, energy usage evaluations, and facility condition assessments. The specific tasks for the contract have not been decided yet, so GAO cannot tell if it will include alternative approaches, as GAO recommended. In addition to citing the architecture and engineering firm?s study of laboratory facilities, EPA officials said they are developing a charge for a second study by independent experts that would assess how well the laboratories are aligned with the agency's mission and strategic needs now and during the next 10 years, as well as examine the laboratory science functions required to meet the agency's highest-priority needs during the next 10 years. Officials said these two studies will provide short-term and long-term recommendations to enhance efficiencies of the laboratories. Until EPA finalizes the scope of work for contracted studies of its laboratories to include options for sharing and consolidation, the agency may not realize opportunities to improve cohesion and efficiency in the management and operation of its laboratories.Moreover, given that EPA has not implemented past recommendations from a similar 1994 study by the MITRE Corporation, until the agency takes action to follow through on options for consolidation and realignment of its laboratory facilities and workforce, it is too early to tell if EPA's current study will result in meaningful change.

    Recommendation: To improve cohesion in the management and operation of EPA's laboratories, and if EPA determines another independent study is needed, the agency should include alternative approaches for organizing the laboratories' workforce and infrastructure, including options for sharing and consolidation.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

 

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