Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Rise and Fall of NOAA - A Cautionary Tale

Taking Advantage of the late day Friday news cycle lull, President Obama announced the demise of the modern Commerce Department at the federal level at the end of last week. In its stead, the "core business functions" of the Commerce Department will now be combined with several other federal business related agencies - including the Small Business Administration, the Export-Import Bank, the Office o f the International Trade Representative, and the International Trade Administration - to form a new business agency, temporarily headed at the Cabinet level by the current Administrator of the SBA.

Receiving less press coverage - but no less important - is what will happen to the 65% of the Commerce Department budget currently known as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Like many presidents before him, Mr Obama dismissively sends them to the Interior Department, where many in the conservation community have long argued they should be. See, NOAA is in Commerce because President Nixon put it there in a spite-filled decision aimed at keeping his Interior secretary from growing more powerful. The spite was over the Secretary's stance on Vietnam. And since NOAA does not have legislative authorization (an Organic Act), the shot-gun marriage from 1970 has stuck.

As I see it, this plan was hatched under three significant - and significantly wrong assumptions:

Equal Words Equals Waste and Inefficiency: In what can only be described as an attempt at a joke that went horribly wrong, the President presaged this move in last year's State of the Union Speech:
    "There are twelve different agencies that deal with exports. There are at least five different entities that deal with housing policy. Then there's my favorite example: the Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they're in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them in when they're in saltwater. And I hear it gets even more complicated once they're smoked."

    On the Surface he is correct - both NOAA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service share jurisdiction over SOME salmon in a single region of the U.S. Atlantic Salmon - which are currently to be found primarily in Maine - are co-managed by both agencies under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). But if you actually Google their respective websites, you will find that their actions are complementary, and not overlapping. You'll also find that a significant amount of the actual work is done by the state of Maine for both agencies.

    Out west, pacific salmon are regulated by NOAA alone, under both the ESA and the Magnuson-Stevens Act (which regulated U.S. Commercial Marine Fishing since pacific salmon can still be commercially harvested). Having learned how hard comanagement was, the Interior Department deferred to NOAA for the ESA, thought they still work closely with the agency on many issues relating to pacific salmon. NOAA has "sole custody" of Magnuson actions, so there is no duplication or overlap there. Bottom line - just because GAO can find the same words describing programs in similar agencies, that doesn't mean there is duplication. Often, programs that sound the same on paper are working on different parts of the same issue.

If It Looks Broken, Clearly We need a New One: The only reason there are nearly as many contracts and consultants doing federal work in the U.S. as actually federal employees is that our politicians seems to have been brainwashed into thinking that all problems can be solved by creating new and different programs and departments to address old and persistent problems. They have also been brainwashed (mostly) into thinking efficiency will bring effectiveness in delivering federal programs.

Don't believe me, then read the assessment of the Department of Homeland Security put out last year by GAO. In it, they highlight three key challenges for the organization:

GAO's work identified three themes at the foundation of DHS's challenges Leading and coordinating the homeland security enterprise; Implementing and integrating management functions for results; and Strategically managing risks and assessing homeland security efforts. This testimony contains no new recommendations.

SImply put, ten years after 9/11, and 8 years after Congress cobbled DHS together from 20 previously existing entities, efficiency and integration are NOT hallmarks of the department.

Ironically, in the case of Commerce, I happen to agree with the President that all the federal functions relating to business should probably be in one place. I actually mistakenly thought several of the players named above in the consolidation list were already in Commerce. But harkening to the advice the GAO imparts here (which I find unusually sage for them ), I have to ask - will these business functions be better managed, delivered more effectively, and thus create efficiencies and cost savings in a brand new organization? Or would it make more sense to shed the non-business parts of Commerce and fold thus stuff in? My sense having worked in federal budget formulation, as well as long-range strategic planning is that the savings and efficiencies (if there are any to be gained) would be from the later approach. Of course, I am not a well paid management consultant, so I am probably missing some important connection - or not.

Even a Decent Idea Can Get Trumped by Federal Statutes: Moving NOAA to Interior will take more then Congressional authorization and a Presidential Executive Order. It will take re-writing 92 federal statutes that tell NOAA what to do. Some of the legislation - like the Weather Bureau Organic Act - is older then NOAA itself. All of it either tells the Secretary of Commerce to do something - i.e. the ESA or Magnuson-Stevens - or tells NOAA to do something, often referencing the Commerce Department along the way. Given that NOAA is routinely sued under the ESA and MSA now, it is a virtual certainty that NOT changing any of this legislation while moving NOAA to Interior will lead to an upswing in litigation. That upswing will NOT enhance efficiency, and will be even more of a drain on the limited federal resource stat NOAA brings to bear on these issues. There's also a Law of Unintended Consequences at work here - all sorts of things could be added to these efforts at legislative rewriting that are more detrimental to the U.S. then anything currently on the books.

So what's your answer smarty pants: Simply this - if we must rearrange the deck chairs, move NOAA out of Commerce, and allow it to stand alone, like the EPA, NASA, and NSF do now. Pas a NOAA Organic Act to do this, and settle what NOAA is and Isn't once and for all. The NOAA Administrator, as Undersecretary of Commerce - is already Senate Confirmed, so there would be no change in procedure for selection of that person. Likewise, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees would still retain the same jurisdiction, which in the end may be the most significant hurdle to the plan as currently proposed. Pull the SBA and all the other business related entities into Commerce, where the management inefficiencies that still plague DHS will be few, since Commerce has been around for a hundred years or so as an executive department.

My plan is likely to never come to pass of course - it makes too much sense, and Washington D.C. is a place where common sense seems to have jumped out the window and run off screaming.