Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board:

Improvements Needed to Strengthen Internal Control and Promote Transparency [Reissued on March 2, 2015]

GAO-15-181: Published: Jan 20, 2015. Publicly Released: Feb 19, 2015.

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What GAO Found

Until 2013, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) had few written policies and procedures for its Board members and technical staff work, and some policies and procedures recently developed for the Board were not consistently followed. For example, Board procedures call for the Board to approve and implement an annual resource plan that would prioritize DNFSB's work for the coming year, but DNFSB has not approved a resource plan for fiscal year 2015. DNFSB officials did not know when the Board would pass a resource plan. DNFSB also began developing detailed written policies and procedures for its technical staff in 2013. DNFSB anticipates implementing 90 technical policies and procedures by 2016, according to agency officials. As of the end of September 2014, 16 had been implemented.

DNFSB records of internal control assessments were missing or incomplete in every fiscal year from 2007 through 2014. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) guidance for internal control directs agencies to document their internal control activities and to retain that documentation. DNFSB has a four-step internal control assessment process consisting of the selection of the areas to be assessed, performance of the assessments, management review of the assessments, and annual management assurance statements to the Chairman of the overall adequacy of internal control within the agency. However, records were missing or incomplete at each step, and DNFSB officials said that some steps likely were not performed, in part due to the departure of officials responsible for them. Having documentation of internal control assessment activities would provide DNFSB with a record that it is performing all steps of its internal control process and help provide reasonable assurance that control activities are being accurately performed.

The Board at DNFSB does not have meeting and voting practices that are transparent to the public. Until October 2014, the Board did not hold public meetings to deliberate and conduct business, and it instead employs a voting practice known as notational voting. Under this practice, the Board circulates written materials for members to review, comment on, and vote on in writing. DNFSB does not publicly disclose the results of these votes, unlike many other agencies. In June 2014, the Board voted to create a policy to disclose its voting results. However, in October 2014, a Board member raised concerns that the policy was not being developed. Moreover, as of November 2014, such a policy had not been developed. The Administrative Conference of the United States, an independent federal agency that provides advice on agency procedures, recommended in June 2014 that agencies using notational voting publicly disclose the conclusions reached via such voting. Having a policy to disclose the matters on which the Board is voting and the results of those votes would enhance DNFSB's transparency, allowing the public to be aware of the Board's decisions, which is important given DNFSB's mission.

DNFSB took some steps to obtain Inspector General (IG) services from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Office of the IG (NRC-OIG) and 17 other OIGs but did not meet two statutory deadlines to obtain IG services. In January 2014, the NRC-OIG became DNFSB's IG by statute and began work in April 2014.

Why GAO Did This Study

Congress established DNFSB in 1988 to provide independent analysis and recommendations to the Department of Energy (DOE) to ensure adequate protection of public health and safety at defense nuclear facilities. DNFSB consists of a five-member Board, which currently has two vacancies, and about 103 technical, legal, and administrative staff. DNFSB's fiscal year 2013 budget was $26.8 million. Until fiscal year 2012, DNFSB was not required to have an IG and did not have routine independent oversight by any other federal entity.

GAO was asked to review the operations and oversight of DNFSB. This report examines the extent to which DNFSB had (1) policies and procedures governing the activities of the Board and technical staff; (2) assessed its internal controls; (3) meeting and voting practices that are transparent to the public; and (4) taken steps to obtain IG oversight and the results of those steps. GAO reviewed relevant federal laws, regulations, and guidance; analyzed DNFSB documents, including records of internal control assessments; interviewed officials from DNFSB, NRC-OIG, and DOE; and gathered information from 14 other federal agency IGs.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends, among other things, that DNFSB document its internal control assessment activities and implement a policy to publicly disclose the results of Board votes. In commenting on a draft of this report, DNFSB described actions it had taken or planned to take to address these recommendations.

For more information, contact John Neumann at (202) 512-3841 or neumannj@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DNFSB has modified its operating procedures to clarify what constitutes a majority of votes needed to approve recommendations. Specifically, the amended procedures clearly define a majority vote as the majority of the number of Board members voting once a quorum has been established; not a majority of the quorum itself. According to the Chairman, the amended procedures are now aligned with agency policy. The amended Board procedures are posted on the DNFSB's intranet and public internet page.

    Recommendation: To improve internal control and promote transparency and to help ensure that DNFSB's policies and procedures are clear and align with Board practices, DNFSB should modify the Board procedure that defines what constitutes a majority of votes needed to approve a recommendation.

    Agency Affected: Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: According to DNFSB officials, DNFSB has updated its policies to maintain paper and electronic documentation of its internal control activities and ensure that key responsibilities, such as reviewing internal control assessments, are segregated among different staff. In addition, DNFSB has contracted for an independent evaluation of its internal control policies. We will continue to monitor actions to address this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To improve internal control and promote transparency and to ensure consistency with OMB's guidance for internal control assessment, DNFSB should clearly document each step of its control assessment activities; maintain that documentation to provide evidence that assessment and control activities are being performed; and ensure that key responsibilities, such as reviewing control assessments, should be segregated among different people to help ensure that control activities are being accurately performed.

    Agency Affected: Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DNFSB has revised its operating procedures for internal control to more clearly identify weaknesses identified during an assessment so that these weaknesses can be tracked and monitored by its Executive Committee on Internal Controls (ECIC) to ensure prompt resolution. Specifically, DNFSB created an assessment summary report to help ECIC track the status of all problems identified during its internal control assessments. DNFSB has also revised its operating procedures to state that all deficiencies shall be corrected expeditiously with documented monitoring.

    Recommendation: To improve internal control and promote transparency and to ensure consistency with federal standards for internal control, DNFSB should develop and implement a formal mechanism within its ECIC to ensure the prompt resolution of all problems identified in its internal control assessments.

    Agency Affected: Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DNFSB has modified its operating procedures to clearly require that the Chairman's annual internal control assurance statement--required by the Federal Managers Financial Integrity Act (FMFIA)--utilize an OMB prescribed term to describe the results of DNFSB's assessment. Specifically, the prescribed terms are unqualified, qualified, or a statement of no assurance. Furthermore, the DNFSB Chairman's internal control assurance statement in the fiscal year 2015 Performance and Accountability Report clearly utilized one of the prescribed terms.

    Recommendation: To improve internal control and promote transparency and to ensure consistency with OMB's guidance on FMFIA-required internal control assurance statements, DNFSB should ensure that, in the future, the Chairman's internal control assurance statement uses one of the three prescribed terms to clearly describe the results of the agency's assessment--unqualified, qualified, or statement of no assurance.

    Agency Affected: Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: According to DNFSB officials, as of October 2016, the agency has taken no action in response to this recommendation. We will continue to monitor actions to address this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To improve internal control and promote transparency and to promote public transparency and openness, DNFSB should clearly distinguish in Federal Register notices and during the proceedings between (1) public hearings held pursuant to DNFSB's statutory authority and (2) meetings as defined by the Sunshine Act, required to be open to the public.

    Agency Affected: Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DNFSB developed a new operating procedure to define the requirements, responsibilities, and processes for posting the results of each notational vote. Specifically, the procedure states that DNFSB will post a notational vote package consisting of the request for Board action, the notational vote response sheets completed by each Board member, and a record affirming the results of the vote. The procedure prescribes a formal process for obtaining review from the general counsel and the security office prior to posting to further ensure that protected or classified information is not disclosed. According to the DNFSB Chairman, to promote transparency and openness, DNFSB also proactively posts all significant Board actions, such as notices of closed meetings.

    Recommendation: To improve internal control and promote transparency and to promote public transparency and openness, DNFSB should develop and implement a policy to publicly disclose, such as on its external website, those matters that have been considered by notational vote and the results of the Board's votes by Board member, including concurring and dissenting comments, if any.

    Agency Affected: Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board

 

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