Defense R&D personnel moves falter

The Defense Department implemented just 26 percent of 178 lab and test center pilot proposals for business partnerships and workforce efficiency, according to a new report.

A study released this week by the General Accounting Office found that guidance was inconsistent, coordination lacking and clear authority missing. The result is that 74 percent of partnership and personnel initiatives proposed by defense labs and test centers in 1999 and 2000 were blocked or dropped during the review process or remain on hold pending resolution.

DOD has 80 in-house labs and 26 test centers whose missions range from basic scientific research to technical support for operational commands. In recent years, many of these organizations have suffered losses because of rigid hiring guidelines, outdated equipment and investment declines. GAO auditors examined initiatives proposed in 1999 and 2000 under pilot programs to address those problems.

"First, DOD did not provide standardized guidance on proposal requirements, coordinate proposals or clarify decision-making authority for proposal review and approval," according to the GAO report, which was released Monday. "Second, DOD attorneys advised that the pilot programs did not provide authority to make most of the proposed human capital changes."

The accounting office made three recommendations for the Secretary of Defense to implement by March 31, 2004:

* Inform Congress of objectives for business operations and personnel initiatives for labs and test centers;

* Develop a process for those initiatives, whether through pilot programs or other vehicles;

* Designate a focal point to coordinate that process.

DOD officials disagreed with the GAO report's conclusions. After reviewing a draft of the report, John Hopps Jr., deputy undersecretary of Defense for laboratories and basic sciences, said that the department has taken actions that essentially implement the recommendations of the GAO or exceed them. Hopps cited new authority and flexibility in the proposed National Security Personnel System as one way to address the workforce issues.

Only four initiatives from 1999 and 2000 were carried out with pilot authority, including donations of lab equipment to local schools, and waivers of top-level certification for certain service agreements with private industry. But lab officials told GAO auditors they were considered minor changes with little impact on the larger problems. About 25 percent of the proposals were implemented through an alternate authority outside of pilot programs.

DOD officials also told government auditors that proposed workforce initiatives were generally in conflict with U.S. Code's title 5, a framework for standard personnel practices across the federal government, and the foundation for managing DOD's civilian workers. The department's Office of General Counsel reviewed the 1999 and 2000 pilot program legislation and said it did not provide the authority to waive personnel rules based on title 5 provisions.

The GAO report also found that the ongoing implementation of a 2003 pilot program faces major obstacles. The project provides no change in authority for workforce initiatives, GAO auditors found. They also concluded that labs and test centers may be reluctant to participate because of discouraging experiences with previous programs.

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