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Report: NOAA officials see weather service business ops model as “unsustainable.”

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It’s been a couple of months since a hullabaloo over allegedly illegal money moves at the National Weather Service briefly left several thousand employees at risk of unpaid furloughs.

But various inquiries into the affair are still under way, and a recently obtained copy of the original investigative report offers some intriguing details not previously disclosed.

For many years, for example, senior leaders at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have viewed the weather service’s business operations model as “unsustainable” because a high level of labor costs eats into management flexibility, according to a heavily redacted copy of the 61-page report received by Federal Times in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

As a result, NOAA officials barred the weather service from creating any new positions, “so they must find ways to move forward with the same number of employees or less,” the report said.

In an email last week, NOAA spokesman Scott Smullen disputed that a freeze was ever in effect, but acknowledged that the “weather service was challenged to find more efficient ways to perform functions.”

NOAA, a branch of the Commerce Department, is now striving to make the weather service more “stable, flexible and resilient,” Smullen added, with several studies already completed or under way. While NOAA is eager to engage employees and other stakeholders, he said, “we are not pre-judging how to get there.”

The internal investigation was completed this spring by a NOAA team in response to anonymous complaints of financial shenanigans. For anyone in need of a reminder, the inquiry found that the Weather Service finance officials reprogrammed millions of dollars among various accounts without congressional approval in 2010 and 2011, and possibly before that. While the exact amount involved is unclear, the report suggested that it could be in the neighborhood at at least $22 million. The weather service’s former chief financial officer, Robert Byrd, has retired, Smullen said.

No evidence surfaced that personal financial gain was a factor; instead, the unauthorized transfers seemed geared to shoring up funding for local forecasting offices. Needless to say, however, that money had to come from somewhere.

One target was the Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System, or AWIPS, the high-tech centerpiece of the weather service’s forecasting efforts, which was maintained by Raytheon under a contract worth about $14.4 million per year. In 2011, about $5.5 million was taken from AWIPS, the bulk of it from the Raytheon contract. Such moves “clearly brought significant risk to the AWIPS program,” the investigators concluded. Although it was not their job to decide whether there was actual damage to the program, the weather service “will need to make this determination in the future,” the report said. A Raytheon spokesman declined comment this week.

After NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco publicly summarized the investigation’s findings in May, the agency sought congressional approval to legally reprogram almost $36 million. Although peeved lawmakers eventually OK’d the request, it was only after the Commerce Department  had notified some 4,800 weather service employees that they could be furloughed if the money didn’t come through.

 

 

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Comments

  1. Ron Says:
    October 19th, 2012 at 2:08 pm

    Is there any chance that you will make the report available online?

  2. Sean Reilly Says:
    October 19th, 2012 at 5:03 pm

    Absolutely; our web team just created a link in the text of the post, so the entire report should now be available. Thanks for the suggestion; let us know if you’ve got any thoughts after reading the report.

  3. Concerned Says:
    October 20th, 2012 at 9:56 am

    It goes much deeper than 2010 and 2011; everyone here knows it. NOAA’s view that NWS is “unsustainable” because a high level of labor costs eats into management flexibility needs to be critically reviewed. NWS has a life saving and a commerce important mission. Weather “good” or “bad” affects everyone’s life and livelihood in positive or negative ways. NWS budget and funding should be fully supported by NOAA, DOC, and Congress. In fact Congress consistently speaks highly of NWS and asks how they can best support NWS. To think NWS is “overmanned” ignores the facts about the Weather Forecast Offices and Centers operations and their life saving missions. It is easy to say reductions must occur but much harder when you know a few facts. NWS senior management struggles to find some small extra funding to advance the science and technology; this is what will EVENTUALLY allow reductions in personnel. However that cannot occur until those advances are developed and proven.
    Investigators, Congress, and those wanting to understand and know need to look to NOAA leadership and their Budget office to find out why NWS budget needs were not and to this day are still NOT being properly stated and sent forward to OMB and Congress. NOAA is the point where the needs are inappropriately reduced. Most of us do blame our former Director for not doing a good job advocating needs and why; instead he preferred not challenging them and being harsh to his staff.
    Is NWS expensive at ~$990M a year? Compared to what? We run 122 Forecast Offices, 13 River Forecast Centers, Hurricane, Aviation, Computer, and Tsunami Warning Centers; all around the clock. Providing weather information for business, federal, state, and local governments and decision makers, for safe flying operations, and for all citizens. We often hear how the Weather Channel or Accuweather can do that. Where do you think all that radar, satellite, temperature, and computer model information comes from?

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