May 6, 2008 — Vol. 1, Issue 4
Message from the Academy Director
What We Can Learn from the GAO High-Risk Series
What, you might ask, is the GAO High-Risk Series?
In 1990, the Government Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office, or GAO) began to issue a series of reports at the beginning of each new Congressional session on government programs and operations that it deemed "high risk." The stated purpose of these reports is to "help in setting congressional oversight agendas and also help Congress and the executive branch carry out their responsibilities while improving the government’s performance and enhancing its accountability." GAO groups its high-risk inquiries in four main areas: 1) addressing challenges in broad-based transformations; 2) managing federal contracting more effectively; 3) assessing the efficiency and effectiveness of tax law administration; and 4) modernizing and safeguarding insurance and benefit programs. GAO issued its most recent full report in January 2007, at the commencement of the 110th Congress.
Since the first report in 1990, NASA contract management has been on the list. NASA is not alone in this category. The two largest contracting agencies in the federal government, the Department of Defense (1992) and the Department of Energy (1990), have also been identified as high risks in this area for several years. In its most recent report, GAO justified its continued inclusion of NASA despite the agency's attempts to make progress:
"This area has been designated as high risk principally because NASA has lacked a modern financial management system to provide accurate and reliable information on contract spending and placed little emphasis on product performance, cost controls, and program outcomes. These weaknesses pose significant challenges to NASA's ability to implement corrective actions and make informed investment decisions. Due to the considerable challenges NASA continues to face in implementing effective systems and processes, contract management remains high risk."
NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale has made it a priority to address the agency's continuing presence on this list. In a blog post dated February 8, 2008, she explained that this is a multidisciplinary issue. "Contract management is very broad, incorporating elements such as project management, earned value management, and financial management, as well as procurement," she wrote. She then described the team effort she led to develop a comprehensive Corrective Action Plan that would address GAO's concerns. The Corrective Action Plan that she approved in October 2007 includes seven initiatives to address the high-risk issues:
- Program/project requirements and implementation practices
- Agency strategic acquisition approach
- Contractor cost performance monitoring
- Project management training and development
- Improve life-cycle cost/schedule management processes
- IEMP process improvement
- Procurement processes and policies
She also noted that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is now participating in regular three-party discussions with NASA and GAO to monitor the agency's progress on the issues identified by GAO.
Of these seven issues, one has direct implications for the Academy of Program/Project & Engineering Leadership: project management training and development. In consultation with the Office of the Chief Engineer, the Academy has begun efforts to ensure that it complies with all relevant sections of the Corrective Action Plan.
While "audit compliance" may sound like a dry, bureaucratic exercise, there is a real opportunity for improvement here. NASA can do better in all these areas. In project management training and development, the Academy is making a concerted effort to do a better job of explaining what we already do: the numbers of employees we train in our courses; the numbers of case studies and articles in ASK Magazine and this newsletter that disseminate lessons learned and best practices; the number of teams we work with on issues of project leadership. Those are just a few examples of the ways that the Academy supports project management training and development, and it's clear that we can do more to make people across the agency aware of our resources and offerings.
In the coming months, the Academy plans to introduce a comprehensive approach to track the professional development of project managers and systems engineers across the agency. I will say more about the details of that initiative in an upcoming article.
Learn more about GAO's High Risk Series
Read Shana Dale's blog post about the GAO High-Risk Corrective Action Plan