Despite reforms, mismanagement still pervasive at Energy

Despite a six-year-long reformation effort, the Energy Department is still plagued by management weaknesses and performance problems, according to a new report by the General Accounting Office. Following criticism from Congress and GAO, Energy Department officials made significant internal reforms during the early 1990s, from streamlining program administration to reducing its workforce and making its huge contractor operations more performance-driven. Department officials claimed agency reforms would save more than $1 billion by 2000. For its report, "Department of Energy: Fundamental Reassessment Needed to Address Major Mission, Structure, and Accountability Problems" (GAO-02-51), GAO reviewed more than 200 audits and reviews conducted during the past six years to gauge whether the reforms have had an impact on agency performance or the bottom line. GAO's investigation found that the reforms did little for either. "The department has persistent management weaknesses that have led directly to a wide range of performance problems, including major cost overruns and schedule delays in a variety of noteworthy projects," the report said. One project involving a laser facility in California is six years behind schedule and $2 billion over cost, GAO found. Management weaknesses are also to blame for the cancellation of two projects in which the Energy Department had invested millions of dollars. "Performance problems persist because its past reforms were piecemeal solutions," the report said in reference to the agency. As a result, the Energy Department's poorly integrated missions have created major organizational challenges. GAO cited shortcomings in the agency's program planning and in its use of strategic goals and measures. "We could not determine from DoE's 1999 and 2000 accountability and performance reports what the department was trying to accomplish," the report said. Also, a lack of qualified technical staff hinders the agency's ability to oversee contractors, which in turn hinders accountability, GAO found. "DoE's leadership has not devoted enough attention to recruiting and training a qualified technical workforce, even though those needs have been known for over a decade," the report said. According to GAO, the three issues that impede the Energy Department's success--its diverse missions, dysfunctional organizational structure and lack of accountability--are all intertwined and the agency should address them comprehensively, rather than individually. Resolving the agency's problems will require intervention from Congress as well as interaction with other agencies, GAO said. The Energy Secretary should work closely with the Office of Management and Budget to determine whether some of the department's missions would be better accomplished if they were farmed out to other agencies or contractors. The Secretary of Energy should immediately stop self-regulation of nuclear safety and begin holding staff and contractors accountable for performance, GAO said. In response to GAO's findings, the agency pointed to its strategic mission review, which is due this month. The review, officials said, will focus the agency on activities that best support its national security mission. The Energy Department has also launched a review to determine why problems identified in previous years have yet to be addressed.
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