Department of Energy:

National Laboratories Need Clearer Missions and Better Management

RCED-95-10: Published: Jan 27, 1995. Publicly Released: Jan 27, 1995.

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James E. Wells, Jr
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Office of Public Affairs
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GAO reviewed the Department of Energy's nine multiprogram national laboratories, focusing on the: (1) laboratories' current and future missions; and (2) DOE approach to laboratory management.

GAO found that: (1) the DOE laboratories do not have clearly defined missions and laboratory managers believe that the lack of DOE direction is compromising their ability to achieve national priorities; (2) DOE manages the laboratories on a program-by-program basis and has underutilized the laboratories' special multidisciplinary abilities to solve complex, cross-cutting scientific and technology problems; (3) although DOE has developed a strategic plan to integrate its missions and programs in five main areas, it still may not be able to effectively manage the laboratories in the future; (4) the costly and inefficient day-to-day management of the laboratories inhibits a productive working relationship between the laboratories and DOE; (5) DOE does not balance laboratory research and administrative objectives; (6) the laboratories fear that rising research costs due to costly administrative requirements will limit their ability to compete for research projects, which in turn will hamper their commercial technology mission; (7) DOE has instituted contract reforms which it believes will lead to a more productive management approach; and (8) the laboratories can make vital contributions in many important areas such as weapons systems, energy conservation, environmental cleanup, and commercialized technologies with proper mission focus and management direction.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Both GAO and the Galvin Task Force called for rethinking the way DOE structures its national laboratory complex. In response to these concerns, DOE created the Laboratory Operations Board in 1995 as an alternative to the Galvin recommendation to corporatize the national laboratory network. The Congress has debated legislation that would substantially alter how DOE laboratories should be managed. Recent security violations and mismanagement of large projects by some laboratories has prompted additional concern over how the laboratories are managed.

    Matter: If DOE is unable to refocus the laboratories' missions and develop a management approach consistent with these new missions, Congress may wish to consider alternatives to the present DOE-laboratory relationship. Such alternatives might include placing the laboratories under the control of different agencies or creating a separate structure for the sole purpose of developing a consensus on the laboratories' missions.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE created the Laboratory Operations Board in April 1995 to provide leadership and management direction for the national labs (the Board is comprised of internal and external experts); developed mission plans for some of its laboratories, and is using technology roadmaps to provide mini-strategic plans for specific program areas, as a way to focus lab missions and improve their management. However, GAO reported in 1998 that these efforts are not being evaluated for their effect on giving laboratories more focus and direction. The Congress has since restructured how DOE manages its defense laboratories, and has streamlined its field structure to improve, among other things, laboratory oversight.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should evaluate alternatives for managing the laboratories that more fully support clear missions, achieve results by linking the laboratories' activities to DOE missions, and maximize the laboratories' resources. Such a strategy could start by addressing the many management issues raised in this report and should be consistent with DOE major efforts to reform contract management. The strategy must also support goals for DOE and the laboratories to comply with environment, safety, and health initiatives. To help achieve this goal, the Secretary should strengthen the Office of Laboratory Management by providing it with sufficient resources and authority to facilitate cooperation with the laboratories and resolution of management issues across all DOE program areas.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy


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