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GAO Wary of NASA Changes to Independent Program Assessment

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Mar-2016
Updated: 30-Mar-2016 11:13 PM

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) says it will keep an eye on how NASA implements its recent decision to dissolve its Independent Program Assessment Office (IPAO) whose task was to provide independent assessments for major NASA programs to improve cost and schedule performance.  NASA terminated IPAO in December 2015 and distributed its responsibilities among other NASA organizations.  GAO cautions that the reorganization could impact project oversight.

In an annual congressionally-required report released today, GAO reviewed major NASA projects that have a life cycle cost of more than $250 million.  The 18 projects in this year's report include five in formulation and 13 in implementation across NASA's four science disciplines (earth science, planetary science, heliophysics, and astrophysics), human spaceflight (SLS, Orion, and associated ground systems; the robotic portion of the Asteroid Redirect Mission; and commercial crew), and the space network ground segment.

GAO generally praised NASA for improving cost and schedule performance over the past 5 years.  However, it noted that cost and schedule growth usually occurs as projects enter system assembly, integration and test and nine projects will be in that phase in 2016, including the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft, the projects with the highest development costs.

At the same time, NASA has decided to eliminate IPAO and its umbrella organization, the Office of Evaluation.  IPAO's charter stated that it "ensures the objectivity, quality, integrity and consistency of the independent review process required" by internal NASA management policies, working collaboratively with the Mission Directorates, NASA Centers and other NASA offices and organizations "while maintaining the integrity and independence of the review process...."  Its goal was "to ensure the highest probability of mission success."

NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot issued a memo on October 26, 2015 announcing that IPAO and the Office of Evaluation were being dissolved.  Its Cost Analysis Division was transferred to the Office of the Chief Financial Officer while its other responsibilities were distributed to the Mission Directorates and NASA Centers.  Lightfoot stated in the memo that the decision was not intended to eliminate independent assessment, but to clarify the accountability of Mission Directorates and Centers.  "Note that the realization of this independent assessment realignment depends on trust among the NASA leadership and a shared perspective on accountability," he said.

NASA Associate Administrator for Communications David Weaver told SpacePolicyOnline.com via email today that in order "to consolidate similar functions and share best practices for programmatic analysis, part of the office was put under the Office of the Chief Financial Officer (OFCO). In combination with mission directorates, they will be part of Independent Review Teams to assess individual projects and programs. Other employees were either reassigned to OFCO as part of the new alignment or were provided positions at the field centers in which they previously resided."

IPAO's former director, James Ortiz, has been assigned for one year to work with Lightfoot to oversee the transition, GAO reported.

Mark Saunders, who was Director of the IPAO from August 2005 to December 2008, said in an email interview today that "dissolving the IPAO is unfortunate" because it provided the NASA Administrator an "independent review of NASA's most important programs and projects for close to 20 years and its termination eliminates that direct insight."  Operating at a level above those responsible for executing programs, it could "ensure they aren't grading their own homework," he stressed, and had the "processes and tools to ensure the competence and independence" of the reviews.

GAO is wary of the change.  "The first potential impact is on the independence of the assessments themselves," GAO cautioned.  IPAO facilitated the identification and approval of the chair of each project's Standing Review Board (SRB), which oversees project management.  IPAO staff also participated in SRBs to ensure projects complied with NASA requirements.  Now, Mission Directorates, in coordination with NASA Centers, will select the SRB chair with approval by the Associate Administrator (the position currently held by Lightfoot).  SRBs will still conduct their assessments independently, GAO said, but "the overall responsibilities for those assessments are being transferred to the directorates who directly oversee the projects being assessed." 

GAO also warned that the "robustness of the reviews could vary by center" because "policy implementation can differ when NASA devolves responsibility to the center level," citing previous cases where that occurred.

GAO said it will "continue to monitor the potential impacts" of the reorganization as it unfolds.


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