DOE Mission Support

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) faces severe management challenges, according to a new report from the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA). The July 2009 report (PDF) concluded that “mission support” functions—particularly human resources management—are weak and hamper the agency’s performance.

Steven Chu, the new energy secretary in the Obama administration, has stressed that he wants the DOE to function “at the speed of light.” But, said the NAPA report, that’s not possible without top-notch mission support functions—HR, contracting, and financial management. All three have problems.

“The mission-support organizations,” said the report, “provide the grease that makes the department run. Without mission support, work in the program offices will grind to a halt.”

The study found major problems in human resources—in the DOE this is the objective of the Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer (OCHCO). This organization, said the NAPA panel, needs to “develop a stronger mission focus. The panel found that mission requirements are not consistently met and that service delivery strategies lack a strong customer service orientation.” The DOE, said the report, doesn’t do well in looking at how it supplies the human resource needs of its components.

Overall, said the panel’s report, the department “does not have formal systems to assess how well the mission-support offices are meeting the needs of the department and to hold them accountable for doing so.” Additionally, said the report, the DOE “needs to better integrate and manage the mission-support office’s efforts in order to develop a coordinated approach to providing essential support services.”

The national energy agency requires very careful management, which it is not getting today, said the NAPA panel, recommending that the agency create an “undersecretary for management.” The panel report said, “The high-risk nature of the department’s operations, the complexity of its mission, and its organizational size and structure require a management focal point for DOE’s mission-support operations and ongoing mechanisms to ensure that the program offices and mission-support offices in headquarters and the field sites work together to identify and meet mission requirements and to establish greater accountability for results.”

The NAPA panel also recommends that the DOE create “as soon as possible” a council on operations management, “consisting of the leadership of the mission and mission-support organizations,” chaired by the DOE’s deputy secretary. Also, the report calls for creation of a “mission-support council,” chaired by the new undersecretary for management, “consisting of the mission-support organizations and their counterpart administrative organizations in the program offices and field sites, to provide a forum where the department’s senior administrative share ideas, raise concerns, discuss strategies, analyze issues, and resolve mission-support problems impacting the department.”

The panel said that human resources/human capital (HC) was the most pressing problem area. HR, said the panel, “comprises the operational activities” of the department’s personnel activities, while HC “encompasses all of the strategic activities associated with managing the department’s workforce. Both are essential for a well-functioning organization.”

The DOE is addressing neither very well, said the panel, which also commented on the lack of a “strategic HC vision and widespread concerns about the quality of operational staffing services performed by OCHCO’s Office of Human Resources Services.” The problem, said the panel, is “a longstanding lack of strong leadership.”

OCHCO, said the panel, “remains an inwardly focused, regulation-based, transactional organization. OCHCO leadership has not set a strategic vision for the office that is mission and customer focused.” The panel report calls for new leadership at OCHCO, saying that it believes “is it urgent that OCHCO undergo fundamental change.” Rita Franklin, a 30-year career civil servant, is the acting head of OCHCO, a holdover from the Bush administration, who assumed her job in November 2008.

In addition to DOE human resources issues, the panel also noted that the agency is heavily dependent on contractors, which poses additional management issues. The large influx of stimulus funds in the Obama administration’s economic recovery plan will only increase that dependence, said the panel. That means, the panel recommended, that the DOE’s “most senior contracting executive have a ‘seat the senior management table’” as the agency doles out dollars to contractors for tasks to accomplish the agency’s mission. While the agency’s central contracting procedures are strong, said the NAPA panel, they do not adequately “focus on developing the infrastructures of DOE’s field procurement offices,” where most of the contracting activity takes place.

The NAPA panel found that the DOE’s Office of the Chief Financial Officer had “developed a more strategic approach” to its operations than either the HR or the contracting offices. Nonetheless, the panel found “several areas” where the finance office’s performance merited improvement. Strategic planning results, said the academy reviewers, “are not effectively linked to decisions emanating from the budget formulation process.” The analysis called for DOE to “add a formal, long-term planning, programming, and evaluation component” to its budget process.

That recommendation, a veteran White House and DOE budget planner told MANAGING POWER, is probably naïve. “The DOE budget isn’t, at the fundamentals, written at DOE or even the White House, and isn’t long-term,” he said. “It’s a product of energy politics. The agency is involved, and the White House is more involved. Ultimately, the congressional appropriations committees call the tune. Formal, long-term planning sounds good, but it’s just not the way things work.”

 —Kennedy Maize is MANAGING POWER’s executive editor.