Independent Review Finds DoC/NOAA Oversight of Satellite Programs "Dysfunctional"

Independent Review Finds DoC/NOAA Oversight of Satellite Programs "Dysfunctional"

An independent review of NOAA’s environmental satellite programs led by Tom Young concludes that NOAA’s oversight of its satellite programs is “dysfunctional” and adds no value.  That is just one of a number of starkly worded findings.  The root cause of these problems is a lack of internal and external trust, the report says.

NOAA is a part of the Department of Commerce (DoC) and its administrator, Jane Lubchenco, is also an Under Secretary of Commerce.   NOAA’s satellite programs are managed by its National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS), headed by Mary Kicza.

Kicza chartered the NOAA/NESDIS Independent Review Team (IRT) to assess the total NOAA satellite enterprise from requirements to product delivery, but not to perform in-depth program reviews of its satellite projects.  The two major NESDIS programs — the polar orbiting Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) and the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) system — have Standing Review Boards to perform the latter task.  The chairs of those boards were part of the IRT. 

In its report, the IRT said its guiding principle was maximizing the probability of the success of the NOAA satellite enterprise. Chaired by Tom Young, a retired industry executive to whom NASA, NOAA and DOD often turn to straighten out troubled programs or conduct failure analyses when things go badly wrong, the IRT found that  —

  • “DOC/NOAA oversight of satellite programs is dysfunctional and not value added,”
  • “DoC/NOAA functional organizations (CFO, CIO) are too involved in program execution with adverse effect,” and
  • “Confusion exists as to the responsibility, accountability and authority of senior managers.” 

Acknowledging that “dysfunctional” is a strong word, the IRT said they debated using it, but concluded it was appropriate. “The current oversight process will make the successful execution of GOES-R and JPSS extremely challenging.  The sheer volume and detail of information required by all levels about the satellite programs is alarming,” the report says.  It particularly criticized the roles that the Chief Information Officer (CIO) and Chief Financial Officer (CFO) have been playing — and those are CIOs from three organizations:  NESDIS, NOAA and the DoC. 

The IRT also found that decision-making is “neither timely nor effective” at all levels.

The root cause of these failings is “a lack of internal and external trust,” the Young report concluded.   NOAA has, indeed, had a troubled history of managing its satellite programs.   Young chaired IRTs that helped get the latest generation of GOES satellites, the GOES-R series, back on track, as well as an IRT that led to the dissolution of the NOAA-DOD-NASA National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS).   That program suffered repeated cost overruns and schedule delays.  A 2009 study led by Young recommended that it be terminated and the Obama Administration did just that in 2010, telling NOAA and DOD to return to separate polar-orbiting weather satellite systems as they have been historically. 

JPSS is NOAA’s successor to NPOESS, but skepticism remains as to its ability to manage the program.  Earlier this year, the Senate Appropriations Committee recommended that acquisition of NOAA’s satellites be transferred to NASA because of concerns that NOAA was headed down the wrong road with JPSS.   NOAA would still operate the satellites once they were launched, but NASA would be in charge of everything else under the committee’s proposal.   That bill has not passed the Senate yet, however, and the Continuing Resolution (CR) that will fund the government through March 2013 simply asks the White House Office of Management and Budget to submit a report on JPSS and GOES-R on how to keep them on cost and schedule.

The IRT made a number of recommendations on how the DoC and NOAA should change oversight and management of the programs.  Assessing the GOES-R model, the existing JPSS model, and a model that approximates the recommendation of the Senate Appropriations Committee, the IRT concluded that the GOES-R model is working well for GOES-R and should be adopted by the JPSS program.

Two documents also released today indicate that DoC and NOAA are taking the results seriously.   One is a decision memorandum from Acting Secretary of Commerce and Deputy Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank in which she agrees with the IRT criticism that in the wake of the NPOESS problems, the Office of the Secretary “conflated the proper role of oversight appropriate at the NOAA and DOC headquarters level with decision-making responsibilities at the NOAA/NESDIS level.”  She then sets out steps to restore proper oversight responsibilities.  An associated decision memorandum from NOAA Administrator Lubchenco further specifies how NOAA will respond to the IRT’s recommendations.


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