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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The EPA Administrator directed the Science Advisor to develop approaches to strengthen systematic communication, coordination, and collaboration across the EPA laboratory enterprise and with its partners and stakeholders. EPA officials said that they plan to strengthen the coordination and planning across the three types of laboratories through the Science Technology Policy Council.

    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: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: EPA took some steps toward establishing a top-level science official with responsibilities to coordinate and oversee the laboratories, but the agency did not expand this official's authority to make management decisions regarding scientific activities for the laboratories.

    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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Senior EPA officials reported that the EPA Administrator directed the agency to manage the laboratory enterprise as an interrelated portfolio of facilities. Based on findings from its synthesis report--which integrated findings from an architecture and engineering firm study and a study by the National Research Council--EPA concluded that it will prepare portfolio-level and site-specific master plans in order to manage its laboratory facilities as an integrated portfolio.

    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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In its synthesis report issued in March 2015, EPA concluded that external benchmarking identified opportunities for the agency to use space at some facilities more efficiently. In addition, the report states that the agency will continue to apply the standard benchmarks to its portfolio of laboratory facilities in order to optimize efficiency and maximize utilization. The EPA Administrator directed the Office of Administration and Resources Management to prepare portfolio-level and site-specific master plans that strategically assess specific needs, estimate savings, and improve the efficiency of the lab facility footprint through reductions in space, energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, and water use.

    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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2012, EPA contracted with an architecture and engineering firm to study how well EPA's organization and facilities were aligned with the agency's mission and strategic needs now and during the next 10 years. The architecture and engineering firm developed metrics, criteria, and a framework to help EPA analyze options to improve the efficiency of its laboratory portfolio. The resulting report was issued in 2015. In 2015, a second study was issued by the National Research Council, which assessed how well the laboratories were aligned with the agency's mission and examined the laboratory science functions. EPA integrated the findings of these two reports into a synthesis report issued in 2015, which indicated the agency will continue to improve the completeness and reliability of operating cost and other data to manage its real property. Furthermore, the EPA Administrator directed the Science Advisor to continue to collect and analyze data about EPA lab facilities, workforce, and operating costs.

    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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA collected data on the overall number of federal, contract, and other employees and their skills and deployment across all lab facilities. EPA officials said they will use these data and evaluation results to continue to improve information about EPA's laboratory workforce. The EPA Administrator also directed the Science Advisor to continue to collect and analyze data about EPA lab workforce.

    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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA conducted a study of its laboratories that applied facility, operating cost, and workforce data as well as objective benchmarks to evaluate alternative approaches for the footprint, workforce, and infrastructure of its laboratory portfolio. EPA initiated steps to consolidate and close some laboratories. In addition, agency officials said they will continue to assess additional laboratories for potential co-location or consolidation.

    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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