Metric Conversion: Plans, Progress, and Problems in the Federal Government

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1990-04-24.

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

For Release        Metric Conversion:
on Delivery        Plans, Progress, and Problems
Expected at        in the Federal Government
9:30 a.m. EDT
April 24, 1990

                   Statement of
                   J. Dexter Peach,
                   Assistant  Comptroller   General,
                   Resources, Community,    and Economic
                   Development Division

                   Before the
                   Subcommittee on Science, Research,
                   and Technology
                   Committee on Science, Space, and Technology
                   House of Representatives

Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee:

      I am'gleased           to be here today               to discuss        our report          on
metric conversion            activities           within      the federal        g0vernment.l                This
report      was prepared          at the Committee's              request       and focuses            on
plans,      progress,      and problems            at 37 agencies           involved        in
implementing          the metric      conversion.

         In summary, we found that                  serious      difficulties          may delay             or
prevent       a timely     and comprehensive                move to the metric              system.           The
Department         of Commerce, as the lead agency,                       has not demonstrated                     a
real     commitment       to guiding        it     and making it          happen,      nor have the
other      federal     agencies      demonstrated             a serious       commitment          to making
the transition.

         Basically,       we found that            agencies      have not advanced beyond the
early      planning      stage.      Only six         agencies        have completed             metric
guidelines,          the first     essential          step toward%conversion.                     Only two
agencies,       the Department            of Defense and the General                   Services
Administration,           have prepared            detailed      transition         plans        identifying
specific       subject     areas for        review.           As a sign of the overall                      lack
of progress,          27 agencies,         including          13 of the 14 major             agencies,
told     us that      more than three-fourths                  of the transition             work remains
to be done.           Although     the Congress             intended      federal      agencies             to use
metric      to the extent         economically             feasible     by the end of 1992, no

'Metric Conversion:    Plans,                    Procress, and Problems              in the Federal
Government (GAO/RCED-90-131,                      March 30, 1990).

        agency has developed                     timeframes      indicating        the extent          each agency
        plans      to accomplish             conversion         by then.         Also,     no agency has set a
        specific       date for           conversion.

                 The lack           of Federal         commitment       to making the metric                   transition
        happen is also                illustrated          by the absence of staff               assigned             to the
        transition           effort       and by the inactivity                 of interagency          metric
        subcommittees.                 For example,          the majority         of the 37 agencies                   we
        surveyed       each assigned                less    than 1 staff         year to the effort                   in
        fiscal       years      1989 and 1990.               In addition,         at the time          of our
        review,       9 of 10 interagency                   metric     subcommittees,          which are
        responsible           for      coordinating          federal     actions         involving      prbcurement,
        transportation,                education,          and other     areas essential              for      a
        successful        conversion,               had not convened.             Two more subcommittees
        met for       the first           time      only within        the past month.


                 U.S. conversion                to the metric          system has taken              on new
        importance        because of growing                  concerns      about the trade                 deficit         and
        our nation's           declining            competitiveness.             The United          States        remains
        the only major                industrialized          nation     with     a non-metric          measurement
        system and thus may be severely                          disadvantaged            when competing               in
        global       markets.           Because metrication              is viewed as a key trade                          and
        competitiveness                issue,       the Department         of Commerce serves                  as the
        lead agency.             It     chairs       the Interagency            Committee      on Metric              Policy

and the Metrication               Operating           Committee which guide            and coordinate
the government-wide               transition.

         In an effort         to spur metric             conversion,        as part     of the
Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness                         Act of 1988 (better              known as the
Trade Bill),          the Congress required                 each federal         agency,      to the
extent        economically        feasible          by the end of fiscal           year 1992, to use
the metric        system in its             procurement,          grants,    and other        business
activities.           Following        a Committee request              to review       the
implementation            of this      requirement,          we surveyed         the 37 federal
agencies        where metric         conversion          would have the greatest               impact.
Thirty-six        of the 37 agencies                  responded     to our questionnaire            and
provided        the primary         basis     for      our assessment.


         As a first        essential         step,      the Trade Bill        mandated that
agencies        prepare      guidelines         for     metric     conversion.         As of February
1990, however,            we found that          only     six    agencies     had completed        such
guidelines.           An additional           16 agencies          expect    to prepare        them by
the end of 1990.              Twelve agencies             did not identify            a date for
completing        them,      and three        more did not expect             to finish        them until
1991 or 1992.
            In general,             we are concerned              about the content                  as well        as the
timeliness . ; of agency guidelines.     According to a conference
committe&report      on the legislation,    the guidelines were to be
modeled on a Department                        of Defense directive                   that         contained        all
the essentials                for     metric         conversion.        However,             only two of the
five        agencies        (other       than the Department                 of Defense)              that     had
completed           their      guidelines             conformed      with      this     model.           Guidelines
at three           agencies         did not provide               adequate      information:                 in one
case,        the guidelines              consisted         of three         memos 10 or more years                         old.
In addition,               many agencies              did not state          when they would finish
their        guidelines         or said         it     would take       another         year or longer                    to
complete           them.

            We also        found that          only three          agencies      have advanced very                        far
in developing               transition          plans      that     identify          specific         areas of
agency concern               and steps          to address          them.       The Department                 of
Defense           issued     a plan       in January            1989 providing               for     16 task        forces
in areas ranging                from specifications                  and standards                  to coordination
with        foreign        countries.           The General          Services          Administration                 issued
its        plan    in April          1990.      The Nuclear          Regulatory              Commission has
drafted           a detailed          report         examining      major      areas and options                    for

            In addition,            we found that           time     frames and milestones                      for
measuring           progress          toward     metric         conversion       have not been

developed,        and no agency expects                  to complete        its         conversion      by the
1992 time        frame cited         in the law.

       In addition            to planning,         agencies       have initiated              a variety           of
activities        to promote metric             conversion,         but overall             progress         is
limited.         In particular,           to facilitate           the transition,              agencies
have established              various     metric     committees.            However,          key
interagency          policy     and operating            committees        and subcommittees,                  as
well   as internal            agency committees             and task       forces         focusing      on
specific      issues,         such as procurement,               have only         started         to explore
conversion        issues.        One positive            sign    is that     many of the key
agencies      have formed internal                 metric       committees.              Ten agencies
reported      that     they had developed             internal        committees,             and three
more plan      to develop          them.

       In response            to our questionnaire,               14 agencies             stated      that     they
have also        identified        federal      measurement-sensitive                     concerns       such as
specifications           or standards          and regulations             affecting          their
conversion        to the metric           system.         Eleven agencies                reported      efforts
to modify      these measurement-sensitive                       concerns         for     metric      purposes.
The extent        of these        individual        agency efforts,               however,         is somewhat
limited.       For example,             the Department           of Defense,             which has been
reviewing      many areas essential                 to metric       conversion,             stated      that
the%e activities              had occurred         to only       a very     limited         extent.          The

General       Services        Administration              has undertaken             efforts          only with
regard       to federal           regulations,           whereas its         review      of thousands               of
more detailed             agency specifications                   is not yet underway.

         Agencies         recogni-ze          that     extensive      work needs to be done before
metric       conversion         can become a reality.                      When asked to estimate                       the
amount of work remaining,                        27 of the agencies,             including             Commerce,
Defense,       and the General                 Services        Administration,           stated         that       more
than three-quarters                   of the work is still                 ahead of them.


         Problems         relating       to metric            conversion      call     into          question       the
federal       agencies'         commitment to completing                     the transition.                    About
three-quarters             of the 37 agencies                  allocated      less     than 1 staff                year
each in fiscal             year       1989.          Some increases         are shown for              fiscal
year     1990, but the figures                       remain at low levels,             with          20 agencies
continuing         to report           less     than 1 staff          year assigned             to the
conversion         effort.            Commerce, as the lead agency,                      reported          3.5
staff     years,      and the General                  Services     Administration              only      1.25
staff     years     for      fiscal      year         1989.     We found that          only          the Nuclear
Regulatory         Commission had made a preliminary                           estimate              of the total
time     and resources            needed for            the effort.          According          to its          draft
report       on metric        conversion,              the Commission expects                  its     conversion
process       to last        until      1997, require             20 to 25 staff          years,          and cost
$2'million         to $3 million.

          Coordinating           the conversion            is a formidable                task    in view of
the large           number of agencies          and issues                involved.         Thus,      leadership
from Commerce and the role                    of interagency                committees           become
paramount           concerns.       In this     regard,            just     this      month,      the Under
Secretary           of Commerce for       Technology,               who is expected              to provide
high-level           coordination       for    this        transition,             was appointed.

          Another       important     area of difficulty                    involves        the interagency
subcommittees            of the Metrication                Operating         Committee.           Although
these       subcommittees          are essential            to the success                of the conversion
effort,       at the time          of our review,            9 of the 10 subcommittees                        that
cover      key transition           areas have not convened due to various
problems,           including     vacancies      and uncertainty                    about who is to
appoint       members.          Two more subcommittees                    met for         the first      time
only      within      the past month.           Since these               ten subcommittees              are also
expected       to coordinate          the federal            conversion            with     the private
sector,       the delays         in convening          them have weakened the agencies'
coordination           of metric      conversion            both     inside         and outside         the
federal       government.

          Fifteen      federal      agencies,         including           the Department              of Defense
and the General            Services     Administration,                   told     us that       measurement-
sensitive          concerns      in the private             sector        are likely         to hinder         their
transition.            Although      some major            industries            such as the automotive
sector      have converted           to the metric             system,           others     are slow to

convert.         One of the most difficult                    areas;        according         to seven
agencies,-          is the construction               industry,       and other         areas cited          range
from food to the electric                     industry       to postal        equipment.            Even the
main federal            procurement         agencies,        the Department            of Defense and
the General            Services      Administration,              stated     that     their      ability       to
influence        metrication             in the private           sector     is quite         limited.

         Cost considerations                involved        in metric        conversion          are also
likely      to limit           the use of the metric               system in at least               one major
federal      procurement.                The National        Aeronautics            and Space
Administration                (NASA) estimates          the additional              costs     in metric
design      of its        proposed        space station           at about $200 million,                   based
on information                provided     to NASA by all           of the major contractors
involved        in the space stationfs                  development.           NASA's metric
coordinator            told     us that     the Agency has no basis                   to challenge           this
estimate.             As a result,         NASA officials           decided         in late      1989 not to
I1g 0 metric"          with     the space station.

         Finally,        with     regard     to metric        education        in federal           agencies,
problems        are evident          especially         in the Department              of Education.
Although      the Trade Bill               directs      agencies       to increase            understanding
of the metric            system through              educational       information            and guidance,
the Department                of Education      as of January              1990 had not established
a policy        for     responding         to this      requirement          nor had it          appointed          a
chairman      to the interagency                subcommittee           on metric            education.
Bemuse of a common interagency                          need for       leadership            in this       area,

the General           Services        Administration             and the Office             of Personnel
Management may serve as lead agencies                               for    metric     education
activitie&,          but this         decision        has not been finalized.

          Our basic        assessment           is that        metric     conversion         has been
limited       by problems            associated         with     implementing         it.      A
combination          of factors        --including            minimal      staff     resources,
difficulty          in organizing             interagency          subcommittees,            and
measurement-sensitive                  concerns         in the government             and private
sector--      suggests        that     conversion            may take much longer              than the
Congress          envisioned.          If     the    federal      agencies         are to achieve
significant          progress         toward        metric      conversion,         a greater       level     of
commitment          must be forthcoming,                  and coordination            not only between
agencies          but with      the private           sector      will     be essential.


          Given the problems                 that    we have identified,              we recommended in
our report          that     the Secretary            of Commerce, as head of the lead
agency in guiding               and coordinating                the federal         metric     transition,
take      steps     to focus         attention        on each of these              issues.        These steps
should       include       efforts          to develop        guidelines       along with          specific
time frames          and a realistic                estimate      of resources          needed to support

metric     conversion,      ai well     as efforts          to encourage        the effective
use of interagency          subcommittees            as soon as possible.

         In view of these problems                 and especially       the low level        of
resources      that    agencies      have made available              to support    metric
conversion,       we believe        the Congress may wish to require                  that
agencies      follow     guidance     provided          by Commerce and include           in their
annual     reports     to the Congress a realistic                   estimate    of the
resources      needed and the time             frame required          to achieve     metric


         That concludes      my statement,              and I will     be happy to answer any
questions      that    you have.