GAO: National Nuclear Security Administration and Key Practices for Agency Reform

NNSA Uranium Processing Facility team members at Y-12. Credit: NNSA

A report issued this week from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) recommended updating the National Nuclear Administration’s policies to align with key practices for agency reforms to help ensure future success.

Over the past 2 decades—the entirety of NNSA’s existence—external studies have identified limitations in NNSA’s management and governance. These studies have included congressionally mandated panels of experts that have identified ongoing challenges involving NNSA’s management and governance. For example, a 2014 congressional panel described dysfunctional relationships between NNSA’s headquarters and field-based offices that were due, in part, to a lack of understanding of each office’s responsibilities and challenges in coordinating their efforts. In 2020, after 4 years of review, a joint National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and National Academy of Public Administration panel reported improvements in NNSA’s management and governance of the nuclear security enterprise and coordination between its offices. The joint panel concluded that more work was needed to maintain this progress and to continue reforming the enterprise.

Map of the United States noting NNSA sites in Livermore, California; Naval Nuclear Laboratories in Idaho, Pennsylvania and New York; Sandia National Laboratories and Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico; Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas; Y-12 Nuclear National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee; and the Savanna River Site in South Carolina.
Credit: GAO

Further, in its 2020 report, an NNSA independent review team identified underlying management and oversight issues that require coordinated action by NNSA to implement long-term, institutional change to
strengthen the enterprise. GAO has also designated NNSA’s management of its contracts, projects, and programs as a high-risk area since the agency was established in 1999. GAO has reported that NNSA’s record of inadequate management of contracts and projects leaves the agency vulnerable to waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement.

NNSA has been reorganized multiple times since its creation in 1999, including most recently in 2022. NNSA has policies to guide its reorganizations. However, these policies only partially follow key practices for agency reforms. For example, NNSA requires that proposed changes have goals. But agency policies don’t require developing outcome-oriented goals or collecting data to gauge outcomes. As a result, NNSA has been unable to assess the effects of its prior reorganizations.

NNSA Program Offices include: Defense Programs, Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation; Naval Reactors; Emergency Operations; Defense Nuclear Security; Counterterrorism and Counterproliferation; and Infrastructure.
Credit: GAO

In one highlighted area, GAO noted that NNSA reorganized its office focused on infrastructure management in July 2022. NNSA split its infrastructure management function and safety function by dissolving the Office of Safety, Infrastructure, and Operations that it had established in 2014. NNSA established two new offices to include these functions: (1) the Office of Infrastructure, which is a program office with a focus on infrastructure management, as well as large capital asset project management; and (2) the Office of Environment, Safety, and Health, which is a functional office with a focus on safety, health, and enterprise stewardship. According to NNSA senior officials interviewed in June 2022, separating infrastructure management and safety functions into different offices was not intended to address any specific management or governance challenge. NNSA senior officials said that the reorganization may provide an opportunity for NNSA to improve infrastructure management beyond recapitalization and maintenance work.

GAO is making two recommendations: NNSA should (1) update its organizational change policy to fully align with key practices for agency reform and (2) establish specific outcome-oriented goals and performance measures for its July 2022 reorganization. NNSA agreed with GAO’s recommendations.

Read the full report:

National Nuclear Security Administration: Fully Incorporating Key Practices for Agency Reform Would Benefit Any Future Organizational Changes. U.S. Government Accountability Office Report to Congressional Committees, January 2023.

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