NOAA's Observing Systems:

Additional Steps Needed to Achieve an Integrated, Cost-Effective Portfolio

GAO-15-96: Published: Nov 17, 2014. Publicly Released: Nov 17, 2014.

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Anne-Marie Fennell
(202) 512-3841
fennella@gao.gov

 

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What GAO Found

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the Department of Commerce operates 41 ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes observing systems. NOAA's Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research and National Ocean Service manage 25 of these observing systems, with management of the remaining 16 systems split among four other NOAA offices. The majority of NOAA's ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes observing systems use one of three platforms—buoys, satellites, or ships—to collect a range of environmental data, which are used to produce a variety of products, such as weather forecasts and navigational tools.

NOAA estimates it spent an average of approximately $430 million annually to operate and maintain its ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes observing systems in fiscal years 2012 through 2014. This is approximately 9 percent of NOAA's total annual appropriations for these years. In reviewing these estimates, GAO found NOAA's annual costs for these observing systems ranged from about $22 million for systems managed by the National Marine Fisheries Service to $198 million for systems managed by the Office of Marine and Aviation Operations in fiscal year 2014.

NOAA has not taken all of the steps it has identified as important to integrate and improve the cost-effectiveness of its observing systems portfolio. Since 2002, NOAA has identified the need to move toward an integrated observing systems portfolio. GAO's previous work has found that, in undertaking initiatives such as this, federal agencies can benefit from following leading practices for strategic planning, which include defining goals and performance measures to track progress. NOAA has not, however, developed a plan that clearly sets forth its vision for an integrated observing systems portfolio, the steps it needs to take to achieve this vision, or how it will evaluate its progress. NOAA officials said they have focused on taking specific steps toward integration rather than developing an integration plan. Without a plan, however, NOAA cannot be assured it has established a framework to effectively guide and assess the success of its observing system integration efforts. NOAA has also not assessed whether its observing systems are collecting unnecessarily duplicative data even though NOAA documents have identified the need to reduce duplication. NOAA officials told GAO that duplication is not a significant problem requiring further analysis. However, in the absence of an analysis, NOAA cannot know whether it is missing opportunities to achieve cost savings. NOAA has taken steps to integrate the management of its observing systems, including creating an observing systems council to provide a more centralized perspective on systems management. The agency has also developed analytical tools to assess its observing system capabilities and requirements, including a model to analyze investment options. Reliable cost data are needed to ensure the most accurate results from this model, but NOAA does not have a standard methodology for tracking its observing systems costs. NOAA officials said the agency is considering developing a better method for tracking observing system costs but has not established a time frame for doing so. Without accurate and consistent cost information, it will be difficult for NOAA to reliably compare the cost-effectiveness of its observing systems and make informed investment decisions.

Why GAO Did This Study

NOAA operates and maintains a portfolio of observing systems to capture the environmental data needed to achieve its diverse missions. Some of these systems focus on the oceans, coasts, and Great Lakes. An observing system is a collection of one or more sensing elements that measures specific environmental conditions and resides on fixed or mobile platforms, such as buoys or satellites.

The House Appropriations Committee fiscal year report for the Department of Commerce's 2013 appropriations bill mandated GAO to review NOAA's ocean and coastal data collection systems. This report (1) identifies and describes the ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes observing systems NOAA operates; (2) identifies the annual operations and maintenance costs of these systems for fiscal years 2012 through 2014; and (3) examines the extent to which NOAA has taken steps to integrate and improve the cost-effectiveness of its observing systems portfolio. GAO analyzed agency documentation on, among other things, the characteristics and management of NOAA's observing systems, reviewed cost data from fiscal year 2012 through 2014, and interviewed NOAA officials.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that NOAA develop a plan to guide the integration of its observing systems, analyze whether unnecessary duplication exists in its observing systems portfolio, and develop a standardized methodology for the routine preparation and reporting of observing systems costs. NOAA generally agreed with the recommendations.

For more information, contact Anne-Marie Fennell at (202) 512-3841 or fennella@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Effective November 1, 2016, NOAA issued an administrative order that established policies, responsibilities, and requirements related to the management of NOAA's portfolio of observing systems. The order included a description of the overall management of NOAA's observing systems portfolio, the guiding principles and vision governing the management of the portfolio, and defined the roles and responsibilities associated with the order's execution. In addition, NOAA outlined three performance measures it plans to use to track progress towards integrating its observing system portfolio.

    Recommendation: To help strengthen the management and cost-effectiveness of NOAA's observing systems portfolio, including ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes systems, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the NOAA Administrator to develop a plan for observing systems integration that includes (1) a description of what an integrated portfolio of observing systems will include and achieve and how it will be managed, (2) the steps necessary to move toward an integrated portfolio of observing systems, and (3) how to measure progress toward the goal of an integrated observing systems portfolio.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In June 2015, NOAA prepared a report that presented the agency's methodology, analysis, and conclusions on the extent to which unnecessary duplication exists in its portfolio of observing systems. The agency's analysis found that no unnecessary duplication exists among NOAA's ocean and coastal observing systems. NOAA concluded that, among other things, use of multiple systems in tandem helps the agency meet stringent data requirements not attainable through use of a single observing platform. Further, based on its analysis, NOAA concluded that its current portfolio of observing systems is collecting insufficient information to fully achieve its mission. For example, the results of the analysis indicated that some observing systems do not collect adequate data for various reasons, such as having limited geographic coverage. According to NOAA, the agency plans to annually conduct a similar analysis of the sufficiency of its observing systems portfolio to help inform future funding decisions.

    Recommendation: To help strengthen the management and cost-effectiveness of NOAA's observing systems portfolio, including ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes systems, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the NOAA Administrator to analyze the extent to which unnecessary duplication exists in NOAA's portfolio of observing systems.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In September 2016, NOAA developed and started implementing a standardized methodology for preparing and reporting on observing systems cost data. NOAA's methodology involved four steps. Specifically, the agency (1) defined cost categories relevant to observing systems; (2) developed a method for preparing and reporting observing system cost information; (3) tested cost-preparation and reporting procedures; and, (4) implemented the methodology for all observing systems. NOAA reported that it plans to annually report on observing system costs starting in the second quarter of fiscal year 2018.

    Recommendation: To help strengthen the management and cost-effectiveness of NOAA's observing systems portfolio, including ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes systems, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the NOAA Administrator to develop a standardized methodology for the routine preparation and reporting of observing systems cost data.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

 

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