Department of Energy:

Uncertain Progress in Implementing National Laboratory Reforms

RCED-98-197: Published: Sep 10, 1998. Publicly Released: Sep 23, 1998.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Department of Energy's (DOE) progress in making needed management reforms in its national laboratories, focusing on: (1) the recommendations made by various advisory groups for addressing management weaknesses at DOE and the laboratories; and (2) how DOE and its laboratories have responded to these recommendations.

GAO noted that: (1) for nearly 20 years, many advisory groups have found that while DOE's national laboratories do impressive research and development, they are unfocused, micromanaged by DOE, and do not function as an integrated national research and development system; (2) weaknesses in DOE's leadership and accountability are often cited as factors hindering fundamental reform of the laboratories' management; (3) as a result, advisory groups have made dozens of recommendations ranging from improving strategic planning to streamlining internal processes; (4) several past advisory groups have also suggested major organizational changes in the way the laboratories are directed; (5) to address past recommendations by advisory groups, DOE, at GAO's request, documented the actions it has taken, from creating new task forces to developing strategic laboratory plans; (6) while DOE has made some progress--principally by reducing paperwork burdens on its laboratories--most of its actions are still under way or have unclear outcomes; (7) furthermore, these actions lack the objectives, performance measures, and milestones needed to effectively track progress and account for results; (8) consequently, the Department cannot show how its actions have resulted, or may result, in fundamental change; (9) for example, its Strategic Laboratory Missions Plan, which was developed to give more focus and direction to the national laboratories, does not set priorities and is not tied to the annual budget process; (10) few experts and officials GAO consulted could show how the plan is used to focus missions or integrate the laboratory system; (11) DOE's latest technique for focusing the laboratories' missions is the technology roadmap; (12) roadmaps are plans that show how specific DOE activities relate to missions, goals, and performers; (13) roadmaps are a promising step but have been used in only a few mission areas and are not directly tied to DOE's budget process; (14) moreover, several laboratory directors questioned both the accuracy of the actions DOE has reported taking and their applicability at the laboratory level; (15) DOE's organizational weaknesses, which include unclear lines of authority, are a major reason why the Department has been unable to develop long-term solutions to the recurring problems reported by advisory groups; and (16) although DOE created the Laboratory Operations Board to help oversee laboratory management reform, it is only an advisory body within DOE's complex organizational structure and lacks the authority to direct change.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: DOE disagreed with this recommendation when the report was issued, maintaining that the department had undertaken several initiatives to improve management of its laboratories. These initiatives incorporated many of the ideas and recommendations from the past laboratory advisory groups. In addition, DOE implemented a new management system which ties to the department's strategic plan. This system includes the Laboratory Operations Board, efforts to correlate basic research and technology development to its strategic objectives, reorganization to clarify lines of authority and accountability, and performance-based contracting. DOE believes that these and other steps accomplish the same objectives as the GAO recommendation and plans no further action.

    Recommendation: To ensure the timely and effective implementation of recommendations from the many past laboratory advisory groups, the Secretary of Energy should develop a comprehensive strategy with objectives, milestones, DOE offices and laboratories responsible for implementation actions, performance measures that will be used to assess success in meeting implementation objectives, a tracking system to monitor progress, and regular progress reports on the status of implementation.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy


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