Federal Management: Addressing Management Problems at the Department of Commerce

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1997-05-14.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                          United States General Accounting Office

GAO                       Testimony
                          Before the Committee on Commerce, Science, and
                          United States Senate

For Release on Delivery
Expected at
9:30 a.m. EDT
                          FEDERAL MANAGEMENT
May 14, 1997

                          Addressing Management
                          Problems at the
                          Department of Commerce

                          Statement of L. Nye Stevens, Director
                          Federal Management and Workforce Issues
                          General Government Division


Federal Management: Addressing
Management Problems at the Department of
                          Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee:

                          We are pleased to be here today to discuss major challenges facing the
                          Department of Commerce in managing its diverse set of missions, and how
                          legislative reforms enacted in recent years can be used to address these

                          The missions and functions of Commerce are among the most diverse of
Major Management          the cabinet departments in the federal government. Formed as a
Challenges Confront       department in 1913, the Department of Commerce initially had nine major
the Department of         components that ranged from the Steamboat Inspections Service and the
                          Bureau of Lighthouses to the Bureau of the Census and the Bureau of
Commerce                  Foreign and Domestic Commerce. Of the nine original components, three
                          remain in Commerce—the Coast and Geodetic Survey, which is now part
                          of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); the
                          Bureau of Standards, which is now the National Institute of Standards and
                          Technology (NIST); and the Bureau of the Census.

                          To this day, Commerce remains essentially a holding company for many
                          disparate programs. Its 14 major components cover a wide range of
                          responsibilities that include natural resources and the environment,
                          advancement of commerce, regional development, scientific research, and
                          statistical information collection. In previous testimony before the Senate
                          Governmental Affairs Committee on June 7, 1995, we identified several
                          other departments and agencies that share these same responsibilities.1
                          For example, Commerce shares its responsibilities for

                      •   natural resources and the environment with the Departments of
                          Agriculture, Defense, the Interior, State, and Transportation; the
                          Environmental Protection Agency, and other independent agencies;
                      •   community and regional development with the Departments of
                          Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development, and the Interior; the Small
                          Business Administration; and the Federal Emergency Management
                      •   collection of statistical information with 9 other “principal” statistical
                          agencies and 60 more agencies that spend at least $500,000 on statistical

                           See Government Restructuring: Identifying Potential Duplication in Federal Missions and Approaches
                          (GAO/T-AIMD-95-161, June 7, 1995)

                          Page 1                                                                 GAO/T-GGD/AIMD-97-115
Federal Management: Addressing
Management Problems at the Department of

Because of the diversity of its functions, Commerce historically has not
been managed on the basis of a unifying mission and shared goals.
Strategic management of the department has been based in its bureaus. Its
key administrative functions are decentralized.

We recently worked with the Commerce Office of the Inspector General
(IG) to provide the committee with a joint analysis of the major
management problems facing the department. The IG took the lead in
identifying specific program areas most in need of reform to improve
efficiency and effectiveness, while we took the lead in describing steps
taken to implement the Government Performance and Results Act and the
Chief Financial Officers (CFO) Act, and to adjust the Department’s
information systems to the year 2000.

As an example of one such management problem, Congress, the Office of
Management and Budget (OMB), GAO, the IG, and others have repeatedly
urged NOAA to explore alternatives to an agency-designed,-owned,
and-operated fleet for acquiring marine data. In a 1996 program evaluation
report of NOAA’s 1995 fleet operations and modernization plan, the IG
recommended that NOAA terminate its fleet modernization plan efforts;
cease investing in its ships; begin immediately to decommission, sell, or
transfer them; and contract for the required ship services from the private
sector, academia, and other government ship operators who can provide
more cost-effective and modern platforms. Yet NOAA continues to plan
investments of millions of dollars in its aging in-house fleet, rather than
using those funds for more cost-effective alternatives.

Another example is the decennial census. With the year 2000 fast
approaching, the Census Bureau’s ability to complete an accurate
decennial census on time and at a reasonable cost is in question. Major
design plans remain incomplete, and the Bureau’s increased dependence
on technology, automated systems, and statistical methods creates a more
interdependent environment requiring a new level of rigor and planning
not readily apparent at the Bureau. The Commerce Department has failed
to convince Congress that it can equitably and efficiently manage a census
design that is in part dependent on statistical sampling. As a result of these
problems, this year we added the census to GAO’s governmentwide list of
high-risk programs where it joined the National Weather Service’s
modernization, which has been on the list since 1995.

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                         Federal Management: Addressing
                         Management Problems at the Department of

                         In the past few years Congress has taken steps to fundamentally change
The Results Act          the way federal agencies go about carrying out their missions. A key step
Requires a               taken by Congress was the passage of the Government Performance and
Fundamental Change       Results Act in 1993. The Act, which is also referred to as “GPRA” or the
                         “Results Act,” is the centerpiece of a statutory framework requiring
in Federal               agencies to clarify their missions, set strategic goals, and measure
Management               performance toward those goals with reliable, auditable information that
                         Congress can use to hold them accountable for results, rather than merely
                         activities or processes. This framework also includes the CFO Act and
                         important information technology reform legislation, including the
                         Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995 and the Clinger-Cohen Act. The CFO Act,
                         as amended by the Government Management Reform Act (GMRA), spelled
                         out an ambitious and long overdue agenda to address the lack of timely,
                         reliable, useful, and consistent financial information in the federal
                         government. The information technology reform legislation is directed at
                         more effective management and use of information technology to better
                         support agencies’ missions and improve program performance.

                         In crafting the Results Act, Congress recognized that congressional and
                         executive branch decisionmaking had been severely handicapped by the
                         absence in many agencies of the basic underpinnings of well managed
                         organizations. The Results Act is intended to address basic management
                         problems and deficiencies that have been typical throughout the federal
                         government, and notably characteristic of the Department of Commerce.
                         For example:

                     •   Because they have accumulated diverse responsibilities in a piecemeal
                         fashion over many years, some agencies, including Commerce, have
                         operated with unclear missions, which hampers their effectiveness. The
                         Results Act requires agencies to define their missions and strategic goals,
                         and to do so in consultation with Congress.
                     •   Many agencies lack coherent strategies for achieving their missions and
                         goals. In a time of budget constraints, the Results Act is intended to force
                         agencies to rethink how they manage their programs, and compare
                         alternative strategies for achieving their goals most efficiently and
                         effectively. In some program areas, responsibilities are fragmented among
                         several agencies, which wastes scarce funds, confuses and frustrates
                         customers, and limits the overall effectiveness of federal efforts to solve
                         national problems. Effective implementation of the Results Act will require
                         agencies to address the fragmentation of program areas, and to coordinate
                         their strategic planning efforts with other agencies. Overlap of missions
                         and functions is a critical problem for the Department of Commerce in

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                           Federal Management: Addressing
                           Management Problems at the Department of

                           that it shares responsibility for major budget functions with 14 other
                           departments and agencies.
                       •   Many agencies lack adequate information on program results and costs.
                           Agencies often measure performance based on their activities or the
                           resources they expend, rather than on the results of their programs. Thus,
                           agencies do not know, and cannot inform Congress, how well their
                           programs are actually achieving their purpose. The Results Act requires
                           agencies to develop results-oriented performance measures and to report
                           regularly to Congress on whether results-oriented goals have been met.
                           The Results Act aims to provide systematic information on the
                           performance of government programs and to directly link such
                           information with the annual budget process. Thus, the other two elements
                           of the statutory framework—the CFO and Clinger-Cohen Acts—are critical
                           to its success. Without accurate and reliable financial information
                           undergirding budgetary estimates decisionmakers will lack a clear
                           understanding of long-term unfunded commitments as well as of the full
                           costs of current government programs. Without information technology to
                           better support agencies’ missions and processes, agencies will not be able
                           to effectively control costs and provide better services. Commerce, for
                           example, is plagued with poor financial and information systems.

                           In anticipation of the Results Act’s requirement that it submit a strategic
The Results Act as a       plan to Congress no later than September 30, 1997, Commerce, like all
Tool for Addressing        other departments, has been working to define its mission and has drafted
Commerce’s                 a strategic plan. Its third draft is dated April 1997 and is being circulated to
                           certain committees as it does the consultations required by the act. The
Management                 draft plan articulates Commerce’s mission: “To promote job creation,
Problems                   economic growth, sustainable development, and improved living standards
                           for all Americans, by working in partnership with business, universities,
                           communities, and workers” through three strategic themes (or goals):
                           (1) build for the future and promote U.S. competitiveness in the global
                           marketplace, by strengthening and safeguarding the nation’s economic
                           infrastructure; (2) keep America competitive with cutting-edge science
                           and technology and an unrivaled information base; and (3) provide
                           effective management and stewardship of our nation’s resources and
                           assets to ensure sustainable economic opportunities.

                           Commerce faces a challenge in defining its mission and outcomes to be
                           achieved in that it does not have exclusive federal responsibility for any of
                           its strategic themes. A focus on results as envisioned by the Results Act,
                           implies that federal programs contributing to the same or similar results

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Federal Management: Addressing
Management Problems at the Department of

will be closely coordinated to ensure that goals are consistent and
program efforts are mutually reinforcing. However, our work in many
important program areas has suggested that the executive branch and
Congress have not fully coordinated related programs, and that overlap
and fragmentation are widespread. The Commerce draft plan, though it
devotes most of its attention to defining the contributions of each of its
bureaus to the three strategic themes, has little to say about the
relationships of Commerce’s programs to those of other agencies.

Because Commerce shares responsibility with other agencies for making
progress on its strategic themes, it must recognize that its efforts are but
one factor among many that may influence whether, and the degree to
which, these program efforts collectively achieve intended results.
Isolating the federal contribution to the achievement of an intended result
has been exceedingly difficult. Economic development programs are a
case in point. According to the Catalogue of Federal Domestic Assistance
there are 342 federal assistance programs related to economic
development. In a 1996 review of economic development programs, we
reported2 that one study of the effectiveness of the Economic
Development Administration’s (EDA) economic development program
found that income in the counties that received EDA funding grew
significantly faster than income in the counties that received no aid.
However, when EDA’s programs and factors unrelated to EDA were
considered simultaneously, the study found that EDA’s program had a very
small effect on income growth rates during the period that the aid was
received and had no significant effect in the years after the aid ceased. The
study found that only a small part of the difference in the growth rates
between the two groups of counties could be attributed to EDA’s programs.

Another focus of the Results Act is to encourage agencies to rethink their
current strategies for achieving their goals. The process has already shown
positive results. One case study highlighted in our Executive Guide 3 is the
Coast Guard’s Office of Marine Safety, Security and Environmental
Protection, which is under this Committee’s jurisdiction. The agency’s
mission is to protect the public, the environment, and U.S. economic
interests through the prevention and mitigation of marine incidents.
Traditionally, the Coast Guard based its marine safety efforts on
inspections and certifications of vessels. It measured its performance by

Economic Development: Limited Information Exists on the Impact of Assistance Provided by Three
Agencies (GAO/RCED-96-103, April 3, 1996)
 Executive Guide: Effectively Implementing the Government Performance and Results Act
(GAO/GGD-96-118, June 1996)

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                       Federal Management: Addressing
                       Management Problems at the Department of

                       counting outputs, such as the number of inspections and changes in
                       inspection results. But the data on marine casualties indicated that
                       accidents were often caused not by deficiencies in the vessels or other
                       factors, but by human error. For example, towing industry data for 1982
                       through 1991 showed that 18 percent of reported casualties were caused
                       by equipment or material failures, 20 percent by environmental and other
                       factors, and 62 percent by human factors.

                       Putting this information to use, the Coast Guard changed the focus of its
                       marine safety program from outputs to outcomes in its first business plan,
                       dated January 1994. The Coast Guard shifted its resources and realigned
                       its processes away from inspections and toward joint efforts with the
                       industry to build the knowledge and skills of entry-level crew members
                       through training. The joint effort resulted in a significant reduction in the
                       reported towing industry fatality rate: from 91 per 100,000 industry
                       employees in 1990 to 27 per 100,000 in 1995.

                       The Results Act’s processes should, in time, stimulate Commerce and its
                       stakeholders to ask similar basic questions about its own programs. For
                       example, how cost-effective is NOAA’s $23 million fishing vessel buyout
                       program compared with other programs by EDA, Labor, and Agriculture
                       that are aimed more broadly at meeting the needs of the Northeast fishing
                       community? If one-third of maritime accidents could be avoided by the use
                       of electronic charts, what is the appropriate priority for efforts to promote
                       their use as opposed to building double hulled vessels to better withstand
                       grounding and collision? NIST’s Advanced Technology Program (ATP)
                       provides cost-shared awards to industry to develop high-risk technologies
                       with significant commercial or economic potential: is it more or less
                       cost-effective than the 11 other major federal initiatives that support
                       industrial research and development in such areas as energy,
                       semiconductors, rail and automobile transportation, a national
                       information infrastructure, or small business innovation?

                       Good financial, management, and program information are key to the
Reliable Information   successful implementation of the Results Act. Without it, accountability
Is Essential           for performance toward results-oriented goals cannot be assured. The
                       Commerce Department must contend with three significant
                       obstacles—antiquated financial management information systems, weak
                       performance measures, and the conversion of its information systems to
                       meet year 2000 requirements.

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                        Federal Management: Addressing
                        Management Problems at the Department of

                        Commerce currently uses eight separate different primary financial
                        systems. Commerce officials have acknowledged that their financial
                        systems are in disrepair, and the systems have been identified as high risk.
                        As a result, the Department’s auditors were unable to render an opinion on
                        the most recent financial statements because of material deficiencies in
                        accounting policies, practices, internal controls, data, and automated
                        systems. A major step the department is taking to address these problems
                        is the development of the Commerce Administrative Management System
                        (CAMS). CAMS, which is undergoing limited pilot testing, will eventually
                        replace and or integrate existing financial and administrative management
                        systems in the department. However, CAMS has experienced
                        implementation delays.

                        This past year the Department’s financial statements for fiscal year 1996
                        were subjected to audit. The resulting audit report noted several
                        weaknesses in performance measures. For example, many measures were
                        not directly relevant to the activities of bureaus and did not consistently
                        provide a clear picture of the outcomes of activities. Often they did not
                        include benchmarks to allow the reader to compare statistics and evaluate
                        the results achieved by the bureaus. An example of the performance
                        measurement problems that the department is confronting as it
                        implements the Results Act is measuring the outcomes from the ATP in
                        NIST. In reviewing NIST’s evaluation of ATP in 1995, we reported that
                        short-term results were overstated or lacked adequate support. In
                        addition, NIST’s proposed use of technical milestones, and the number of
                        collaborations and strategic alliances, to evaluate ATP ran the risk of
                        creating false expectations of its economic success.4

The Year 2000 Problem   Three of Commerce’s units—Census, NOAA, and the Patent and Trademark
                        Office—rely heavily on large computer systems to carry out their missions.
                        Consequently, they face a major departmentwide challenge in converting
                        information systems for the year 2000. Delays in CAMS implementation
                        could also result in significant year 2000 problems for Commerce. The root
                        of the year 2000 problem is in the way dates are recorded and computed.
                        To conserve on electronic data storage, systems have typically used two
                        digits to represent the year, such as “97” for year 1997. With this two-digit
                        format, however, the year 2000 is indistinguishable from 1900, 2001 from
                        1901 and so on. As a result, system or application programs that use dates

                         Performance Measurement: Efforts to Evaluate the Advanced Technology Program,
                        (GAO/RCED-95-68, May 15, 1995).

                        Page 7                                                              GAO/T-GGD/AIMD-97-115
                        Federal Management: Addressing
                        Management Problems at the Department of

                        to do calculations, comparisons, or sorting may generate incorrect results
                        when working with years after 1999.

                        The year 2000 program is probably the largest and most complex system
                        conversion that the department and its components have ever undertaken.
                        It requires first-class program management, as well as the disciplined and
                        coordinated application of scarce resources to a departmentwide systems
                        conversion that must be completed by a fixed date. We have concerns
                        about Commerce’s efforts. While Commerce has completed awareness
                        training and issued a policy directive, it has not documented a high-level
                        year 2000 strategy. Management of the program is a collateral duty for its
                        leadership, and the staff assigned to the year 2000 program are not full
                        time, and while Commerce has established an overall schedule for the
                        completion of the remaining assessment, renovation, and implementation
                        phases, it has not defined year 2000 compliance or developed a year 2000
                        program plan. Further, although Commerce has an inventory of its major
                        systems, the inventory assigns equal priority to all of Commerce’s systems.
                        Thus, the inventory may not be useful for establishing system conversion
                        priorities. Moreover, the inventory does not identify internal or external
                        interfaces, or show which systems are to be renovated, replaced, or

                        Our assessment of Results Act implementation efforts across the
Strong Congressional    government to date has shown that to effectively implement the act,
Oversight Will Be       agencies face a number of policy challenges that will not be quickly
Necessary to Keep the   resolved. For example, the federal approach to addressing national needs
                        often has been to give several agencies important responsibilities in a
Focus on Improving      given program area. This is the case, as we noted, with natural resource,
Management              economic development, and statistical programs for which Commerce is
                        one of several agencies having responsibility.

                        Forging the political consensus needed to create and sustain federal
                        programs often results in those programs having competing and/or broadly
                        stated goals. Thus, coordinating cross-cutting program efforts and
                        reaching a reasonable degree of consensus on agencies’ strategic goals
                        likely will force agencies and Congress to directly confront significant
                        political and policy hurdles that will not be easily resolved. Nevertheless,
                        the Results Act implementation can help to inform policy decisions by
                        providing information on the relative effectiveness and costs of different
                        programs, thus allowing comparisons among differing approaches in
                        cross-cutting program areas.

                        Page 8                                                GAO/T-GGD/AIMD-97-115
Federal Management: Addressing
Management Problems at the Department of

Consistent congressional interest at authorization, appropriation, budget,
and oversight hearings on the status of an agency’s Results Act efforts,
performance measures, and use of performance information to make
decisions, will send an unmistakable message to agencies that Congress
expects the Results Act to be thoroughly implemented. The first step is the
consultation with congressional committees on agencies’ strategic plans
that the Results Act requires—a step that needs to be taken soon since the
plans are to be formally transmitted to Congress by September 30 of this
year. Another step that committees can take toward sharpening agencies’
focus on results would be to hold comprehensive oversight hearings, using
a wide range of program and financial information. Agencies’ program
performance information in the form of accountability reports that will be
generated under the Results Act, and the audited financial statements that
are being developed to comply with the GMRA can serve as the basis for
these hearings. The accountability reports are intended to show the degree
to which an agency met its goals, at what cost, and whether the agency
was well managed. Congress must have a central role in defining the
content and format of these reports to ensure that the reports eventually
provide Congress with a comprehensive “report card” on the degree to
which agencies are making wise and effective uses of tax dollars. Such
reports should provide a full picture of an agency’s performance and
resource usage to accomplish its mission—thus giving Congress an
excellent tool for oversight.

In the case of Commerce, a special obstacle is created by the dispersion of
responsibility among 18 different congressional committees that have
either authorizing, appropriating, or budgeting jurisdiction over the
Department and its wide array of programs and services. This presents a
challenge for the department as well as Congress in gaining coherent
agreement on virtually all aspects of performance and results—from the
content of the strategic plan, to the selection of performance goals and
appropriate results-oriented measures, to the review of the department’s
subsequent annual reports on the extent to which goals were met. The
House has responded to this challenge, which affects most agencies
(though few to Commerce’s extent) by forming cross-cutting teams of staff
members from different committees to help ensure that strategic plans
meet the requirements of the Results Act and thereby provide a solid
foundation on which to assess the effectiveness of each department or
agency. The teams’ initial focus is on coordination of the consultation
process on draft strategic plans. At the request of several House chairmen,
we have just developed a guide to the consultation process that lists a
series of key questions that the teams may find useful in evaluating the

Page 9                                                GAO/T-GGD/AIMD-97-115
Federal Management: Addressing
Management Problems at the Department of

plans and discussing them with the agencies.5 We are also assisting most
of these teams in their work by bringing to bear the results of our work in
a systematic fashion on important issues identified by the teams.

In summary, the Results Act, if properly implemented, can be a useful tool
for improving the management of the Department of Commerce. Having
enacted it and other financial and information statutes, Congress has put
into place the right tools for obtaining the kinds of information it needs for
effective oversight. We have no higher priority than helping Congress carry
out this role.

That concludes my prepared statement, Mr. Chairman. I will be pleased to
respond to any questions you or other Members of the Committee may

 Agencies’ Strategic Plans Under GPRA: Key Questions to Facilitate Congressional Review
(GAO/GGD-10.1.16, May 1997)

Page 10                                                                GAO/T-GGD/AIMD-97-115
Page 11   GAO/T-GGD/AIMD-97-115
Related GAO Products

              Agencies’ Strategic Plans Under GPRA: Key Questions to Facilitate
              Congressional Review (GAO/GGD-10.1.16, May 1997 Version 1).

              Statistical Agencies: Consolidation and Quality Issues (GAO/T-GGD-97-78,
              Apr. 9, 1997).

              Weather Satellites: Planning For the Geostationary Operational
              Environmental Satellite Program Needs More Attention (GAO/AIMD-97-37,
              March 13, 1997).

              Managing for Results: Enhancing the Usefulness of GPRA Consultations
              Between the Executive Branch and Congress (GAO/T-GGD-97-56, March 10,

              Managing for Results: Using GPRA to Assist Congressional and Executive
              Branch Decisionmaking (GAO/T-GGD-97-43, Feb. 12, 1997).

              Information Technology Investment: Agencies Can Improve Performance,
              Reduce Costs, and Minimize Risks (GAO/AIMD-96-64, Sept. 30, 1996).

              Information Management Reform: Effective Implementation Is Essential
              for Improving Federal Performance (GAO/T-AIMD-96-132, July 17, 1996).

              Managing for Results: Key Steps and Challenges in Implementing GPRA in
              Science Agencies (GAO/T-GGD/RCED-96-214, July 10, 1996).

              Executive Guide: Effectively Implementing the Government Performance
              and Results Act (GAO/GGD-96-118, June 1996).

              Managing for Results: Achieving GPRA’s Objectives Requires Strong
              Congressional Role (GAO/T-GGD-96-79, Mar. 6, 1996).

              Weather Forecasting: NWS Has Not Demonstrated that New Processing
              Systems Will Improve Mission Effectiveness (GAO/AIMD-96-29, February 29,

              Measuring Performance: The Advanced Technology Program and Private
              Sector Funding (GAO/RCED-96-47, January 11, 1996).

              Government Reorganization: Observations on the Department of
              Commerce (GAO/T-GGD/RCED/AIMD-95-248, July 25, 1995).

              Page 12                                                 GAO/T-GGD/AIMD-97-115
           Related GAO Products

           Managing for Results: Status of the Government Performance and Results
           Act (GAO/T-GGD-95-193, June 27, 1995).

           Government Restructuring: Identifying Potential Duplication in Federal
           Missions and Approaches (GAO/T-AIMD-95-161, June 7, 1995).

           Weather Forecasting: Radar Availability Requirements Not Being Met
           (GAO/AIMD-95-132, May 31, 1995).

           Performance Measurement: Efforts To Evaluate the Advanced Technology
           Program (GAO/RCED-95-68 May 15, 1995).

           Government Reorganization: Issues and Principles (GAO/T-GGD/AIMD-95-166,
           May 17, 1995).

           Research Fleet Modernization: NOAA Needs To Consider Alternatives to the
           Acquisition of New Vessels (GAO/RCED 94-170, August 3, 1994).

           Executive Guide: Improving Mission Performance Through Strategic
           Information Management and Technology (GAO/AIMD-94-115, May 1994).

           Weather Forecasting: Systems Architecture Needed For National Weather
           Service Modernization (GAO/AIMD-94-28, March 11, 1994).

           Decennial Census: 1990 Results Show Need for Fundamental Reform
           (GAO/GGD-92-94, June 9, 1992).

(410139)   Page 13                                               GAO/T-GGD/AIMD-97-115
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