Chemical Safety Board:

Improved Policies and Additional Oversight Are Needed

RCED-00-192: Published: Jul 11, 2000. Publicly Released: Jul 11, 2000.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board's management problems, focusing on: (1) the status of the Board's organization and operations; (2) the Board's efforts to update and develop plans, policies, and procedures for accomplishing the Board's mission, including those aimed at ensuring the objectivity of its investigative activities; and (3) whether the Board would benefit from the independent oversight of an inspector general.

GAO noted that: (1) since January 2000, the Board has been operating under a new organizational structure based on shared decision-making, which was not in effect during most of its first 2 years of operation; (2) continuing disagreements between three of the Board members and the former Chairman raise questions concerning the Board's future productivity and effectiveness; (3) in terms of operations, the Board has made only limited progress in addressing the investigative backlog that developed after its first year, and it has not initiated a new investigation since March 1999; (4) however, the realigned Board established eight priorities for the balance of fiscal year 2000 that support its primary investigative mission, including the completion of three investigative reports; (5) the Board has made some progress in developing needed plans, policies, and procedures to guide its activities; (6) for example, the Board issued formal written procedures for awarding and managing contracts in December 1999; (7) however, these policies were not in place when most of the Board's larger contracts ($100,000 or more) were executed, and Board officials have identified a number of contracting activities that appear to have provided limited benefit to the agency; (8) furthermore, the Board is revising its interim criteria for selecting incidents to investigate as well as its investigative protocol and is developing a strategic plan to both meet statutory requirements and update its business plan; (9) the Board plans to have these plans and guides completed by September 2000; (10) the Board's interim investigative protocol does not include needed policies and procedures that would help ensure objectivity and balance in its investigative work, such as those covering conflicts of interest; (11) the operational problems that the Board has experienced in its 2-1/2 years of existence--including governance and management conflicts, contracting expenditures of limited value, and the lack of basic operating policies and procedures--suggest that ongoing institutional oversight would be beneficial; and (12) while the Board could develop an in-house audit function or contract out for evaluations, GAO believes an option that offers the best potential for effective oversight would be for the Board to obtain the services of an existing office of inspector general.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Chemical Safety Board has adopted several policies and procedures aimed at addressing GAO's recommendation that the Board better ensure "investigative impartiality and thoroughness." Regarding the resolution of professional differences of opinion that may occur during an investigation, the Board has revised its procedures to require that Board members are informed about investigative issues resolved by the Chief Operating Officer when incident investigation reports are submitted to them for review and approval. The procedures also clarify that Board members may contact staff conducting investigations for information and discussion. In addition, the Board has revised its procedures to allow the publication of a Board member's dissenting statement to an incident investigation report on the Board's web site. To address the handling of requests for reconsideration of aspects of issued reports, and external peer review, the Board has revised its investigation protocol to add detailed procedures for vetting reports to appropriate parties. In addition, in response to the conflict GAO identified between the Board's procedures and its agreement with EPA regarding the joint conduct of interviews, the Board has changed its procedures to allow other investigatory agencies to conduct joint interviews with the Board when appropriate. The previous policy stipulated that the Board should always conduct its interviews independently. Finally, in 2004, in response to a report from the Department of Homeland Security's Inspector General that recommended that the Board develop and implement clear policies and procedures on potential conflicts of interest per GAO's earlier recommendation, the Board has committed to publishing a policy regarding employee conflicts of interest which is scheduled to be issued by September 30, 2004. In the meantime, the Board approved Board Order 21 on the CSB Ethics Program which appointed the Board's general counsel to administer the CFR-outlined basics of an ethics program, including annual training and financial disclosure statements.

    Recommendation: The Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board should develop and implement clear policies and procedures on potential conflicts of interest and consider other policies and procedures that would further promote investigative impartiality and thoroughness, such as ensuring substantive disagreements among investigative team members are appropriately identified and addressed, the reporting of minority views of Board members in investigative reports, the handling of requests for reconsideration of aspects of issued reports, and external peer review.

    Agency Affected: Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As recommended, the Chemical Safety Board agreed to seek assistance from an existing Office of Inspector General to provide institutional oversight of the Board. The Federal Emergency Management Agency IG now provides institutional oversight of the Board.

    Recommendation: To provide the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board with the benefits of independent institutional oversight and to protect the government's financial interests, the Board should develop an agreement with an existing office of inspector general, giving that office the authority to investigate the Board's operations and programs, monitor agency responses to its recommendations, report to the Board and Congress about weaknesses and deficiencies, and provide a hotline to report instances of suspected fraud, waste, or abuse. The Board should also notify Congress in the event that it is unable to negotiate an agreement for these services with an existing inspector general.

    Agency Affected: Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board

 

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