NASA IG Details Program Management Challenges, Need for Strong Leadership by President, Congress, Agency

NASA IG Details Program Management Challenges, Need for Strong Leadership by President, Congress, Agency

NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) released a report today that identifies four major challenges that cause NASA programs to experience cost overruns and delays.   Solving these challenges will require strong and consistent leadership from the President, Congress and NASA managers, the report stresses.

After interviewing 85 people inside and outside the agency and obtaining input from other NASA employees through an internal blog, the OIG identified in its report the following major NASA program management challenges:

  • NASA’s Culture of Optimism Can Result in Unrealistic Projections
  • Underestimating Technical Complexity Increases Cost and Schedule Risk
  • Funding Instability Can Lead to Inefficient Management Practices
  • Project Manager Development Opportunities are Limited

The report offers examples in each area to demonstrate on a practical level how programs are impacted by these challenges.   In the funding instability area, for example, it cites both external (presidential and congressional) and internal decisions that can wreak havoc with a program manager’s schedule that may be well crafted initially.  “[F]unding instability can create a cycle of perpetual funding shortfalls by triggering schedule delays and program inefficiencies, which in turn lead to additional costs and greater risks,” the report says.  When funding is insufficient in one program, the agency may take money from another, exacerbating the problem.  “For example, NASA leadership took funds from the budgets of other programs and projects to cover cost overruns and schedule delays in the Constellation Program, JWST [James Webb Space Telescope], and MSL [Mars Science Laboratory].”

As one example of funding instability, the report highlights the challenges of managing programs when the agency is funded under a Continuing Resolution (CR) rather than getting an appropriation bill enacted prior to the beginning of the new fiscal year.   The report then graphically shows how NASA has received its annual appropriation at the beginning of a fiscal year only seven times since the agency was created in 1959.  Sometimes the delay was only days, but in others it was many months.

NASA will be operating under a CR for the first half of FY2013.

The OIG gives NASA credit for changes it already has made, such as using the Joint Cost and Schedule Confidence Level (JCL) probabilistic analysis, issuing a Corrective Action Plan in response to a 2007 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, and requiring that “project plans document baseline and threshold values for performance metrics to be achieved at each key decision point (KDP) and mission success criteria associated with the program-level requirements that, if not met, trigger consideration of a Termination Review.”  The report also says that NASA appears to be holding program managers more responsible as evidenced by the recent decision not to confirm the Gravity and Extreme Magnetism (GEMS) project because of cost growth. 

The only way to solve NASA’s program management challenges is through leadership, the report concludes:  “In our judgment, meeting the challenges outlined in this report can only be realized through a ‘unity of effort’ that includes strong, consistent, and sustained leadership by the President, Congress and NASA management.”

In a written response published as an appendix, NASA Chief Engineer Mike Ryschkewitsch says NASA “generally concurs” with the OIG’s assessment and points to improvements the agency already is making.  He also defends some of NASA’s practices, however.  “NASA believes that the culture of optimism is necessary to successfully accomplish the challenging tasks the Nation has asked of us,” he writes, adding that “We also recognize that sufficient checks and balances must be in place to ensure that we have realistic plans when we begin execution.”  In summary, Ryschkewitsch says “NASA recognizes that the continuing refinement, improvement, and implementation of sound acquisition practices, policies and processes are essential to mission success.” 

Editor’s Note:  In the interest of full disclosure, I was one of the 85 people interviewed by OIG for this report.



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