Fast Facts

The National Weather Service issues weather forecasts and warnings to help protect life and property, especially as severe weather unfolds. Most of its field offices across the nation operate 24 hours, every day.

However, we found that the rates of staff vacancies in these offices have more than doubled since 2010, and these vacancies have often lasted months—forcing managers and staff to work extra shifts and shorten leave to complete necessary work.

The agency has made efforts to hire new staff, but hasn't evaluated whether its actions are reducing the hiring backlog. We recommended that it do so.

National Weather Service Forecasting Workstations

Two photos of weather forecasting workstations.

Two photos of weather forecasting workstations.

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Highlights

What GAO Found

Available data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) National Weather Service (NWS) indicate that the number of vacancies across its operational units has increased since fiscal year 2010. Specifically, agency data show that vacancies—unfilled positions at a point in time—increased from about 5 percent of the total number of positions at the end of fiscal year 2010 to about 11 percent in 2016. NWS officials reported that they did not have the resources to fill all of these vacancies and therefore developed additional data that factored in available resources. Based on these data, the vacancy rate across operational units was approximately 0.6 percent in fiscal year 2010 and increased to about 7 percent in fiscal year 2016.

NWS operational unit managers and staff GAO interviewed said they had taken several steps to address the impact of vacancies that remained unfilled for months, and in some cases, more than a year. These steps included managers and staff performing additional tasks to ensure forecasts and warnings were issued, staff adjusting their work and leave schedules, and managers requesting temporary staff from other units. However, taking these steps, according to managers and staff, at times led to their inability to complete other key tasks, such as providing severe weather information support to state and local emergency managers.

NOAA's Workforce Management Office (WFMO) makes limited information available to NWS managers on the status of their hiring requests. NWS managers said such information was critical for allocating resources and managing work, particularly in light of the length of the NWS hiring process. For example, agency data show that filling hiring requests selected for processing ranged from 64 to 467 days in fiscal year 2016. GAO found that complete information was often not available to managers, such as when the processing of a new hiring request was scheduled to begin. This is not consistent with federal internal control standards that call for management to communicate necessary quality information to achieve an entity's objectives. A WFMO official said the agency is working with the Department of Commerce to develop a new department-wide data system, potentially in 2017 that could provide improved tracking and reporting capabilities, but the design of the new system has not been finalized. In the interim, without complete information on the status of their requests, NWS operational unit managers are limited in their ability to plan for and distribute their unit's workload in the most efficient and effective manner.

NOAA's WFMO and NWS have taken some actions to help address NWS's hiring backlog. For example, NWS has combined job announcements for similar positions into one announcement. NWS officials said they believe such actions have allowed them to streamline hiring, but they have not evaluated the extent to which their actions have achieved expected results, consistent with federal internal control standards. NWS intends to develop a strategic human capital plan, which officials said could provide a framework for evaluating its hiring actions, but does not have a time frame for its development. In the interim, by evaluating whether its actions are reducing the hiring backlog, NWS would have better assurance that its actions were achieving expected results, and the agency could better determine where to devote resources.

Why GAO Did This Study

NWS has the critical responsibility of issuing weather forecasts and warnings to help protect life and property, especially as severe weather unfolds. Most NWS operational units across the nation operate 24 hours every day to issue forecasts and warnings. NOAA's WFMO processes NWS hiring requests and other actions related to human capital.

GAO was asked to review vacancies and hiring at NWS operational units. This report examines (1) information available on vacancies at NWS operational units for fiscal years 2010 through 2016, (2) any steps NWS operational unit management and staff have taken to address the impact of vacancies at their units, (3) the extent to which NOAA's WFMO makes information available to managers on the status of hiring requests, and (4) the extent to which NOAA's WFMO and NWS are taking actions to address the hiring backlog at operational units. GAO analyzed available vacancy data for fiscal years 2010 through 2016 and assessed the data's reliability; examined relevant documentation and interviewed NOAA, WFMO, and NWS officials; and visited a nongeneralizable sample of nine units selected to reflect geographic diversity and varying vacancy levels.

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Recommendations

GAO recommends that NOAA (1) ensure that complete information on hiring requests is routinely communicated to NWS managers and (2) evaluate whether NWS actions to reduce the hiring backlog are achieving expected results. NOAA agreed with GAO's recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Commerce To enhance information available to operational unit managers, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the director of NOAA's WFMO to ensure that complete information on hiring requests is routinely communicated to NWS managers throughout the three phases of the hiring process, such as by supporting the development of improved tracking and reporting capabilities in the planned new Commerce-wide data system.
Closed - Implemented
As of December 2020, NOAA has taken steps to ensure that information on hiring requests is communicated to NWS hiring managers throughout the phases of the hiring process, as recommended by GAO in May 2017. For example, the Office of Human Capital Services (formerly WFMO) developed guides to explain the hiring process and timeline to hiring managers. Additionally, according to agency officials, hiring managers are now guided through the hiring process by Human Resources Business Advisors who are assigned to each of the NWS regions and serve as consultants to hiring managers. For each hiring request, hiring managers receive a hiring plan, which indicates the dates for completing the various steps in the hiring process. Among other things, the hiring plan provides the date for completing the review of applications, so the hiring manager knows when to prepare for conducting interviews. As a hiring request moves through the hiring process, all individuals listed on the request, including the hiring manager, can view its status in NOAA's human resources data system and are regularly sent notifications as the request progresses. During the final phase of the hiring process, hiring managers can use this system to track the status of a new hire's progress through the security clearance process.
Department of Commerce To help ensure NWS's hiring actions are achieving expected results, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the NOAA Assistant Administrator for Weather Services to evaluate the extent to which NWS's actions are reducing the hiring backlog and achieving the goal of sustaining a highly skilled workforce; for example, NWS could evaluate these actions as part of the development of its strategic human capital plan.
Closed - Implemented
As of January 2020, NWS had completed its strategic human capital plan, including strategies to streamline hiring and reduce the agency's hiring backlog. NOAA and NWS developed metrics to evaluate the success of their strategies to streamline hiring, including evaluating the number of internal versus external hires, assessing the time-to-hire new employees, and quantifying the number of employees promoted under the agency's new career progression framework. According to agency documents, reports on these metrics are presented to NWS senior leadership every pay period, which allows agency leadership to assess whether the strategies are improving hiring efficiency, and achieving NWS's goal to sustain the workforce capacity and skills needed to meet the agency's evolving mission needs.

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