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October 30, 1998

The Department of Energy has been unable to demonstrate that it can effectively manage the reform of its national laboratory system, the General Accounting Office (GAO) says in a new report. Consequently, GAO recommends that Congress consider alternatives to the present relationship between DOE and the laboratories. In response to on-going congressional concerns about DOE’s progress in making systemic changes, GAO evaluators were asked to:

  • identify the recommendations by various advisory groups for addressing management weaknesses at DOE and the laboratories, and
  • evaluate how DOE and its laboratories have responded to the recommendations.

The GAO study, "Department of Energy: Uncertain Progress in Implementing National Laboratory Reforms," identified nearly 30 reports by a wide variety of advisory groups on various aspects of the national laboratories’ management and missions. GAO asserts that the more recent advisory groups have reported similar weaknesses the laboratories’ missions are unfocused; DOE micromanages the laboratories; and, the laboratories are not operating as an integrated system.

In assessing how DOE has responded to the recommendations, GAO determined that while DOE has made some progress, its actions are either still underway or have unclear outcomes. The agency’s responses "lack the objectives, performance measures and milestones needed to effectively track progress and account for results." The report further states, "DOE’s organizational weaknesses, which include unclear lines of authority, are a major reason why the Department has been unable to develop long-term solutions to the recurring problems reported by the advisory groups."

The report recommends that the Secretary of Energy develop a comprehensive strategy for meeting reform implementation objectives. The strategy should include objectives, milestones, performance measures, designated offices responsible for implementation actions, a tracking system to monitor progress, and regular progress reports on the status of implementation.

In its response to the draft version of the report, the Department of Energy argued that the GAO failed to take into account the full range of changes undertaken by the agency, including its commitment to achieving long-term, stronger management for the laboratory system.  It also noted the scientific excellence and productivity at the laboratories should not be overlooked.

The report concludes, however, that in the opinion of the GAO evaluators, establishing accountability for ensuring that reform takes place in a timely manner is a challenge for DOE. GAO advocates that it is time for Congress to consider alternatives such as placing the laboratories under the control of different agencies, or creating a separate structure to develop a consensus on the laboratories’ missions.

The full GAO study, "Department of Energy: Uncertain Progress in Implementing National Laboratory Reforms," (RCED-98-197) is available on the Internet at the following site: http://www.gao.gov/new.items/newtitle.htm