Space agency defends acquisitions processes

More consistent use of "knowledge-based acquisition processes" could help NASA complete projects on time and on budget, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

The report (GAO-06-218), published this week, recommended that NASA enhance the use of information about project status in reviews to determine how work should move forward.

So-called knowledge-based acquisition processes are management procedures designed to bring relevant information about all aspects of a project into key system and product decisions. GAO said changes to the agency's knowledge-based acquisition framework will be critical as it prepares to spend more than $100 billion to meet initial goals of the president's 2004 Vision for Space Exploration, and as it takes measures to address a history of cost, schedule and performance problems in major projects.

Consistency in project decision-making would aid NASA in balancing multiple missions, such as human space flight, pure science and aeronautics, the report stated. But Allen Li, GAO's director of acquisition and sourcing management, said in remarks presenting the findings that some of NASA's 10 centers are resistant to a system of standardized criteria because "they feel it could be overly prescriptive" and unrealistic given the "unique nature" of the work being done.

The congressional auditors recommended that NASA require information-based decision reviews for ongoing projects as they transition from design into implementation and production, at which stage key technologies would be assessed for whether they are sufficiently mature to proceed. It also recommended that projects entering production phases should be assessed for the potential to be manufactured to cost, schedule and quality targets.

In a written response, NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale agreed with GAO's points but defended the agency's practices. Many of the recommendations are already practiced at the agency, but are not reflected in policy documents, she said.

She also noted the nontraditional nature of many of NASA's projects. "Very few NASA projects enter into a traditional production process," she wrote. "Most NASA missions fabricate one-of-a-kind spacecraft using a proto-flight or very small quantity approach."

Dale said that critical design reviews, one of the minimum set of reviews required for such projects, would be modified to include success criteria appropriate to knowledge-based decisions.

In his concluding comments, Li called NASA's plans to address the recommendations "a positive step" and said they would be helpful in ensuring that less experienced project managers are clear on unwritten, institutionalized practices. But he warned that project officials should be held accountable for using in their decision-making processes the information newly available through updated success criteria.

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