NIST late to start work after getting paid, GAO says

After paying NIST for research, federal agencies wait as long as two years for work to start

Congress’ watchdog agency has scolded the National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST) for taking too long to get started on research jobs it performs for other federal agencies.

NIST frequently conducts scientific work for other agencies under interagency agreements, but it takes as long as two years for NIST to begin the work, the Government Accountability Office concluded in a new report.

“NIST took, on average, an estimated 125 days to start work,” according to the Oct. 20 report. “Further, GAO estimates that NIST began work about seven months after receiving funds advanced from clients for about half of its agreements. In some cases, the delay was one to two years.”

The report noted that although there is no governmentwide standard for when such work must begin, a reasonable time frame would be 90 days. Without such a standard, there is a risk that long delays could lead to budget-tracking inconsistencies and potential violations of the Anti-Deficiency Act resulting from the carryover of funds from year to year, the report states.

“NIST does not ensure that it starts work on its agreements within a reasonable amount of time after client agencies advance funds to NIST,” the report states. “Long delays in starting work may lead to the improper use of appropriated funds.”

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In fiscal 2009, NIST had an $85 million carryover in working capital funds received under interagency agreements, which represented 71 percent of the total working capital carryover fund. It has had similar carryovers each year since at least 2004.

Among the reasons auditors cited for NIST’s delays are the fact that the agency generally does not record or monitor the date it begins work on interagency agreements, nor does NIST consider whether it has sufficient personnel and resources available before accepting new work.

NIST lacks a high-level strategic focus in managing its workforce and tracking its interagency agreements, GAO concluded, and made the following recommendations:

  • Hold senior NIST managers accountable for strategic management of interagency agreements.
  • Develop, implement and communicate policies for reasonable time frames for beginning work on interagency agreements, and track and monitor those times.
  • Monitor the time period of appropriations for all funds under interagency agreements.
  • Perform robust legal reviews of interagency agreements.
  • Review close-out policies for funding to ensure compliance with federal laws.

NIST managers agreed with the recommendations and said they were taking corrective action.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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