GAO questions Air Force budget shuffling

Air Force funding maneuvers that saved some employees from furloughs and other fiscal stresses may have a hard time expanding as auditors want to see more proof of its effectiveness.

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The Air Force Space Command's Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) protected a handful of civilian acquisition employees from furloughs and other fiscal stresses through a pilot program that shifted some 2012 funding from its operations and maintenance budget to its research and development budget. But plans to expand the program to protect more workers could be in doubt now that the Government Accountability Office is asking for more proof the strategy is effective.

SMC provides the Defense Department with operational space and missile systems, launch systems and command and control infrastructure in support of global national security operations. The center, headquartered at Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo, Calif., employs an estimated 6,300 people -- including 1,800 federal civilian employees -- at the base and locations worldwide.

During fiscal 2012, the Air Force implemented a program that moved $187.1 million for SMC's civilian acquisition personnel from its operations & management (O&M) account to its research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E) account.

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GAO report

Before fiscal 2012, funding for SMC acquisition civilian personnel was provided through the O&M appropriation, along with funding for most other Air Force civilian employees, according to a July GAO report.

General William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, told FCW in an email that the funding shift had several goals, including: stabilization of the workforce across the planning, programming, budgeting and execution cycles; alignment of mission and workforce funding; providing the ability to resource new missions immediately; and more funding flexibility.

According to the GAO report, the Air Force is also considering asking Congress to approve a similar shift for another acquisition workforce group -- civilian personnel at the Air Force Materiel Command headquartered at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. GAO quoted Air Force officials saying that move would include about 10,000 personnel and $1.2 billion in funding.

However, the report found the Air Force didn't back up the 2012 trial with any evidence that it accomplished its aims. "While a variety of potential goals were identified by the Air Force in budget justification documents and an internal briefing, and by officials we met with in the course of our review, these were not clear or consistent," said GAO.

While some Air Force officials said the pilot program would provide program managers with flexibility to hire civilian personnel using RDT&E funding rather than hiring additional contractors, in later briefings other officials said the program allowed the workforce to be more efficiently identified and excluded from hiring freezes or furloughs. The GAO added that the Air Force has made no plans to evaluate the outcome of the trial and "it remains unclear if the potential impacts cited by Air Force officials during our review can be characterized as advantages or disadvantages."

While GAO was sympathetic to the desire to find creative methods of funding, the Air Force needed to better manage the trial, according to the report. It said the Air Force didn't really consider the potential impact of moving funds for SMC's acquisition civilian personnel and didn't follow established practices identified for implementing and evaluating pilot programs.

GAO offered four recommendations for the Air Force's top leaders:

Develop objectives that link to the goals of the pilot program.

Develop processes and procedures for approving, reporting, and monitoring the pilot program.

Develop and implement a data collection and analysis plan for evaluating pilot performance.

Communicate the evaluation results to stakeholders.

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