IG decries lax top-level oversight

Senior officials are criticized for ignoring problems in a multi-agency satellite project

Editor’s note: This is the first of two articles on interagency management problems that have delayed the launch of an environmental satellite system. Next week: How senior leaders plan to regain control of the satellite project.

A culture of hands-off management has derailed a $9.7 billion interagency weather satellite project, according to an inspector general’s testimony, and prompted several lawmakers to request the resignation of two senior officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Johnnie Frazier, the Commerce Department’s inspector general, testified last month that poor project oversight and excessive and inappropriate performance award fees caused more than $3 billion in cost overruns and a 17-month delay in launching the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS). That news led House Science Committee members Reps. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) and David Wu (D-Ore.) to request the resignation of retired Vice Adm. Conrad Lautenbacher, undersecretary of Commerce for oceans and atmosphere, and his deputy undersecretary, retired Gen. John Kelly.

During a House Science Committee hearing May 11, Frazier said that senior government officials were disengaged from the project and failed to foresee that problems with a crucial sensor could delay launching the first NPOESS satellite. NOAA, the Defense Department and NASA are responsible for the NPOESS project. A committee comprising senior NOAA, DOD and NASA officials is charged with providing overall policy guidance and oversight.

NPOESS was supposed to be ready to launch its first satellite in March 2008. But during the 32-month period from May 2003 to December 2005, the senior-level oversight officials met formally only six times and did not meet at all from May to December 2003, even as monthly reports showed subcontractor delays related to the sensor.

Despite continuing reports about the project’s problems, the prime contractor, Northrop Grumman Space Technologies received more than $123 million in performance award fees, according to Frazier’s testimony. Those fees amounted to 84 percent of the available fee pool for the first six award periods. “We question the practice of paying award fees for performance rated ‘unsatisfactory’ by officials,” Frazier said.

The project’s senior leaders received a flogging during the hearing for not taking responsibility for their failures. Committee Chairman Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) said he was unhappy with NPOESS, which he described as “totally out of whack.” Boehlert said the committee would continue scrutinizing the project to ensure that the mistakes made in NPOESS are not repeated in NOAA’s next big satellite procurement.

John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, which monitors space and military programs, said NPOESS might not be in a state of shambles had senior-level officials at NOAA and DOD assessed the project firsthand.

“Senior management needs to relearn the art of managing by walking around,” he said.

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