NOAA grapples with uncertainty over Obama reorganization plan

Proposed move from Commerce to Interior adds to concern about budget cuts.

When President Obama last spring released a video soliciting ideas on modernizing government to better compete in the 21st century economy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was about to get thrown into the mix. “Move NOAA from DOC to DOI,” read a suggestion tagged No. 1979 and ranked No. 1439 in the White House compilation. “I think it paints a bad picture when we are supposed to be managing and conserving marine resources and we are under the Department of COMMERCE” rather than the Interior Department, an anonymous NOAA employee said in the submission.

Months later, after a lengthy consultation process, such a transfer ended up a part of the Obama administration’s proposal to seek congressional approval of authority to consolidate six major business and trade agencies.

Government Executive inquiries have found some support for transferring NOAA, but the proposal comes at a time when the 42-year-old agency that deals with issues as diverse as weather, fisheries and space has been struggling with ever-tightening budgets. The plan draws criticism from lawmakers, some former NOAA officials, environmental nonprofits, and at least one union leader who says the Office of Management and Budget’s efforts to consult employees about potential changes were insufficient.

Dan Sobien, president of National Weather Service Employees Organization, whose 4,000 members make up the largest bargaining unit at NOAA, was unimpressed with OMB’s online solicitations. “Nobody contacted us for our input. No one from the White House said, ‘Hey, wanna come talk?’ ” he said. “There was no coordination.”

Sobien added he also wasn’t notified of the plan in his capacity as co-chairman of Commerce’s labor-management forum. “Until someone at an administrative level comes down and says, ‘I’m thinking about consolidating it,’ I can’t follow everything,” he said.

NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco reassured staffers that their mission and work are still important while promising to keep them in loop. A spokesman for NOAA referred inquiries to OMB.

According to OMB, last year’s governmentwide online solicitation by the president and Chief Performance Officer Jeffrey Zients (now Obama’s acting budget director) attracted hundreds of replies from inside NOAA, some agency-specific, others governmentwide. OMB anticipates further consultation with NOAA employees and other major stakeholders if Congress votes to give the president the consolidation authority that has long existed but was dismantled in the 1980s.

Some wariness of the larger reorganization plan emerged from an online survey of 250 federal employees in mid-January that Government Executive’s Government Business Council conducted. But of the 51 responses from inside Commerce, 21 said their department was most in need of streamlining.

Since the reorganization plan was unveiled, OMB has elaborated on the rationale for moving NOAA. “By consolidating NOAA into Interior, we will enhance scientific resources and strengthen our stewardship and conservation efforts,” Lisa Brown, director of the Obama government reform initiative, said in a statement to Government Executive.

The administration sees synergies, for example, between NOAA’s National Weather Service and Interior’s U.S. Geological Survey. Both have expertise in hydrological and water resources --critical to forecasting flash floods and droughts -- and in seismology, with USGS focusing on earthquakes and NWS on operating the county’s tsunami warning network.

The plan “makes a lot of sense,” James Baker, the NOAA administrator in the Clinton administration, told the Science Insider blog published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. But lawmakers in charge of NOAA's budget “could be a stumbling block if they feel they are losing control,” he added, noting that such problems helped sink several past efforts to move the agency.

On Capitol Hill, a skeptical view came from Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, chairman of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard. On Jan. 13, he said he was “not sure burying NOAA in an already overburdened Interior is a good idea.” Noting Alaska is “producer of more than half of the nation’s seafood,” he said, “the proper management of our fisheries is vital to thousands of jobs in Alaska and to protecting this precious resource . . . I’ll be asking tough questions as this proposal moves forward.”

Scott Rayder, who was chief of staff at NOAA during the George W. Bush administration, said while there were some promising fits between NOAA and Interior, he was concerned that moving NOAA risked creating new inefficiencies by breaking off parts of the agency. An example is a proposal heard from some to move NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service to NASA.

“NOAA’s mission is environmental intelligence, and it is an operational organization producing intelligence that is actionable,” Rayder said. “People must understand that the mission must be preserved” no matter where NOAA resides. He warned that new joint polar and geospatial satellite systems will soon barrage NOAA with a “tsunami” of data. “Assembling intelligence out of that data would be a real challenge if you split up the organization,” he said.

Some environmental groups argue that rather than move NOAA to Interior, the administration should make it an independent agency, an idea two separate commissions on ocean policy broached within the past decade.

Emily Woglom, director of government relations for the Ocean Conservancy, issued a statement on the day the Obama reorganization plan came out saying that while streamlining functions related to business and the economy is a “laudable goal,” her group was “concerned about unintended consequences.” She cited NOAA’s current effort to prevent overfishing. “Our priority is to ensure that ocean conservation has a strong voice in the federal government,” she said. “Reorganization for NOAA at this time could potentially diminish or distract from the agency’s vital mission.”

Woglom told Government Executive that “NOAA is understandably a side issue when the motivation is to make government more efficient, but we think a similarly thoughtful process is needed on a decision to move it.”

Another growth area that might be put at risk is the development of new techniques to improve the National Weather Service’s ability to forecast deadly tornadoes, according to Sobien. “All this talk of going from one department to another might stop the scientific progress,” he said.

The fate of NOAA also will be affected by the fiscal 2013 budget process, which gets under way Feb. 13, when President Obama is scheduled to release his request. The past year was a contentious one as NOAA struggled with its procurement and operating budgets to preserve funds for key satellite systems.

NOAA’s $4.9 billion line item enacted in December 2011 for fiscal 2012 makes spending “look like it’s up, but it’s holding steady,” Woglom said. The spending levels that House Republicans proposed in 2011 were “devastatingly low across-the-board,” cutting into operations in order to protect satellites, she said. “NOAA shouldn’t have to choose between tornado forecasting and protecting fisheries.”

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., last March defended his chamber’s approach, saying a 20 percent increase in NOAA funding from fiscal 2008 to fiscal 2010 was cut to 10 percent. “Nowhere have we indicated that we're directing NOAA not to emphasize the services it provides for the safety, health and welfare of Americans,” Cantor said during a press briefing. “I'm told that this point was raised by some employees at NOAA, [who] made it known that they didn't believe the cuts were needed. We all have to do more with less here.”

Sobien pointed to two NOAA programs where managers have expressed concerns in staff emails about budget cuts. One would end the National Weather Service’s collection of data on lightning, and the other would curb its upper-air atmospheric sounding program, both of which would affect the service’s ability to issue weather warnings, he said. Close to 80 percent of the budget is the cost of labor, he noted, so by carving out funds from programs to pay salaries, the budget is “stealing from Peter to pay Paul.”

Rayder said he knew “of no federal agency that has enough resources to meet all of its requirements, and NOAA is resource challenged because requirements for information are expanding in new areas.” But its expanding operational mission sets beyond forecasting hurricanes, tornadoes and floods into emerging threats such as space weather events and tsunamis on U.S. shores, make it more urgent that NOAA communicate a requirements-driven budget to Congress as well as to OMB, he said, even though getting approval for such requirements “is tough.”

As for the big reorganization, Sobien acknowledged some uncertainty about whether parts of NOAA belong in Interior, Commerce, or even the Federal Emergency Management Agency or Transportation Department.

“For most employees, it doesn’t register in their life one way or another,” he said. “They’re here to do a job saving lives, getting the tornado warnings out there.”

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