Space:

Training Necessary to Address Data Reliability Issues in NASA Agreement Database and to Minimize Potential Competition with Commercial Sector

GAO-11-552R: Published: May 26, 2011. Publicly Released: May 26, 2011.

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Today, GAO issued a correspondence identifying the internal controls that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has in place for reimbursable Space Act agreements and assessing to what extent the agency is adhering to those controls. Specifically, our review focused on NASA's internal controls related to (1) fair reimbursement from agreement partners; (2) interference between agreement partners' work and NASA's use of its facilities; and (3) alignment of agreement partners' work with NASA's mission. In that correspondence, we reported that NASA was generally adhering to its controls for entering into reimbursable Space Act agreements. In our review, however, we also found several instances in which agreements were not completely and accurately recorded in the Space Act Agreement Maker (SAAM) database. In addition, we identified one instance where NASA awarded a reimbursable agreement when similar services may have been available in the private sector. This action appears contrary to the National Space Policy and may have also been contrary to the Commercial Space Competitiveness Act. Federal government standards for internal controls state that control activities should help ensure that all transactions are completely and accurately recorded. NASA's SAAM database, managed by the Mission Support Directorate, is used to assist in writing and storing information relating to Space Act agreements. Although agreements are not required to be written using the system, Space Act agreements and related documentation, except for international agreements, are required to be stored there. According to NASA officials, the agency relies on SAAM-generated quarterly reports to help maintain the integrity of the system's data. For example, NASA officials stated that agreement managers use quarterly reports to identify (1) agreements that were begun, but not submitted (i.e. false starts); (2) agreements that have been submitted, but have not completed the review process; and (3) agreements that have been submitted and completed the review process, but have not been signed. Agreement managers at each NASA center also use monthly reports to track Space Act agreement-related work at the center. These reports are also sent to the Office of International and Interagency Relations at NASA headquarters for awareness and coordination purposes. The Commercial Space Competitiveness Act provides that federal agencies, including NASA, may allow nonfederal entities to use space-related facilities on a reimbursable basis if the Administrator determines that, among other things, equivalent commercial services are not available on "reasonable terms." The 2006 and 2010 National Space Policies state that agencies should refrain from conducting United States government space activities that compete with U.S. commercial space activities, unless required by national security or public safety. NASA has developed internal controls related to this statutory provision and policy. For example, the agency has issued a Space Act Agreement Guide, an agency-level guidance document, and an interim directive on reimbursable agreements which reiterate the importance of avoiding competition by the federal government with the private sector. In addition, when drafting the agreement in the SAAM database, the responsible agency official (technical point of contact) is required to discuss how NASA goods, services, or facilities to be provided are unique and not available from the U.S. commercial market. Depending on the technical point of contact's response, the agreement could be flagged for additional review by the NASA center's Office of Chief Counsel.

As part of our assessment of NASA's internal controls regarding fair reimbursement, we utilized the Space Act Agreement Maker (SAAM) database to identify partially reimbursable Space Act agreements, or those agreements with waived costs, awarded in fiscal years 2009 and 2010. In selecting agreements to review, we identified 20 agreements out of 58 whose agreement type had been incorrectly coded, resulting in inaccurate data within the SAAM database. This represented almost 34 percent of agreements awarded in fiscal years 2009 and 2010 that had been coded as partially reimbursable or fully reimbursable with dollar figures in the waived cost field. For example, some agreements that had been coded as partially reimbursable Space Act agreements were actually fully reimbursable or non-reimbursable Space Act agreements - both of which do not involve waived costs. For other agreements labeled as partially reimbursable, NASA actually paid the partner instead of receiving payment from the partner. NASA officials told us that these were interagency acquisitions rather than Space Act agreements. We also identified 12 Space Act agreements that were labeled as fully reimbursable or fully non-reimbursable in SAAM, but included dollar figures in the waived cost field. NASA officials subsequently reported that 8 of these agreements were partially reimbursable, 3 were non-reimbursable, and only one was a fully reimbursable agreement. We later determined only 6 of these agreements were partially reimbursable. During our review of partially reimbursable Space Act agreements, we identified one agreement from Glenn Research Center that may have been contrary to the Commercial Space Competitiveness Act and the National Space Policy. The agreement involved conducting small engine jet testing services for a commercial firm at a cost of $78,685. NASA's technical point of contact for the agreement, who was unaware of the limits on NASA competing with the private sector, told us that the commercial firm approached NASA in an attempt to receive small engine jet testing using Glenn Research Center's Propulsion Systems Laboratory at a cheaper rate than what was charged commercially. Officials from Glenn Research Center's Office of Chief Counsel stated they did not know that these services were available commercially because the technical point of contact had indicated in the SAAM database that NASA had unique capabilities to conduct this testing and that the services were not generally available commercially. As a result, NASA entered into the agreement to perform the work as it helped to sustain a core facility and competencies and even waived the center management and operations costs associated with performing the work. While we did not independently verify whether these services were available commercially, regardless, because of the technical point of contact's lack of understanding of restrictions on competition with the private sector, the controls NASA had in place to prevent competition with the private sector were ineffective. To improve the data integrity of the SAAM system, we recommend that the Administrator of NASA direct the Mission Support Directorate to 1. Rectify the data inaccuracies in the SAAM database that we have identified in this report. 2. Assess why the coding errors we have identified in this report occurred and develop procedures for enhancing the accuracy of the data. To improve data integrity and ensure NASA does not violate statutory provisions or policy regarding competition with the private sector, we recommend that the Administrator direct the Mission Support Directorate to 1. Provide refresher training, as part of NASA's annual Space Act agreement community of practice, to SAAM users that explains the various agreement types, stresses the importance of accurately inputting data into the SAAM database, and clarifies NASA's policy regarding competition with the private sector.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To improve the data integrity of the SAAM system, the Administrator of NASA should direct the Mission Support Directorate to rectify the data inaccuracies in the SAAM database that we have identified in this report.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NASA's Mission Support Directorate has corrected all of the data inaccuracies identified in the report.

    Recommendation: To improve the data integrity of the SAAM system, the Administrator of NASA should direct the Mission Support Directorate to assess why the coding errors we have identified in this report occurred and develop procedures for enhancing the accuracy of the data.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NASA's Mission Support Directorate has assessed why the coding errors occurred and identified two primary causes, and the Directorate has conducted additional training and made changes to the Space Act Agreement Maker database to enhance data accuracy. The primary causes of the data entry errors were (1) agreement initiators' lack of understanding of how to classify certain agreements in the system and (2) agreement managers' failure or inability to update the initial agreement classification if it changed during negotiations with the commercial partner. NASA has also taken several steps to enhance the accuracy of the data, including conducting training on proper agreement classification, modifying the Space Act Agreement Maker database to allow agreement managers to make changes to the classification of their agreements as needed, and flagging agreements whose classifications appear to be incorrect.

    Recommendation: To improve data integrity and ensure NASA does not violate statutory provisions or policy regarding competition with the private sector, the Administrator should direct the Mission Support Directorate to provide refresher training, as part of NASA's annual Space Act agreement community of practice, to SAAM users that explains the various agreement types, stresses the importance of accurately inputting data into the SAAM database, and clarifies NASA's policy regarding competition with the private sector.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As part of its annual Space Act agreement community of practice, NASA conducted training on proper agreement classification protocols, the importance of accurately inputting data into the Space Act Agreement Maker database, and the agency's legal and policy requirements related to competition with the private sector.

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