NOAA’s low hanging problem–Part 5

IRT’s interim solution fixes just one NOAA problem

We finally come to the problems with the Independent Review Team’s (IRT) satellite recommendations to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA).  If you’d like a quick overview of the overall scenario, please go to my post here—maybe you’ll come back less confused?

Ultimately, the IRT is recommending the NOAA somehow build interim, or “gap-filler” satellites, at least three, to fill the potential NOAA sun-synchronous Low Earth Orbiting satellite gap.  The IRT’s recommendation:

“A gap-filler project must be started immediately as a hedge against the early potential gap previously described.” (page 18, 2013 IRT follow-up assessment)

This gap is projected to happen possibly as late as 2017 because of satellite mission design life considerations, although it could occur earlier.  You can go to these posts for clarification about mission design life.

Here’s why the recommendation isn’t so simple:  it relies on the same slow, confused, and costly acquisitions mechanisms and decision processes which caused the initial “gap” problem.  Here’s what the IRT suggested as a solution:

“As to the feasibility of rapidly developing and deploying spacecraft, there are examples of small Low Earth Orbit (LEO) spacecraft being completed 2-3 years from start.” (page 18, 2013 IRT follow-up assessment)

Maybe the IRT gave a list of examples of these shorter programs to the NOAA managers when it was briefed.  It would be good to know what their reference standard is.  Unfortunately, the list isn’t in this report.  And the gap problem is just a symptom of the other issues the NOAA was having.

The NOAA was concerned their programs were having issues—satellite programs were getting more expensive and not getting done on time.  This was the original reason the IRT was established.  So, the IRT’s 2013 follow-up assessment was after a 2012 assessment report the IRT originally authored for the NOAA.   And the IRT found some significant problems.  On page 4 of the 2012 report, the IRT had five concerns:  Oversight and decision process, governance, JPSS Gap (the satellite gap), programs, and budget.  Let’s look over each one of these concerns for an understanding why it’s unlikely a “gap-filler” satellite program will be successful.  Some parts leading to this understanding will be longer than others.

Accountable government

To understand the IRT’s meaning when talking about the “oversight and decision process,” is to understand the essence of the government’s role in the world of buying or “acquiring” satellites (or most other things like aircraft, tanks, toilets, etc.).  The government has money (taxpayer money) and has a need, normally described in a list of requirements.  So the government establishes a program for buying something.  In a program, there’s the part of government disbursing money, and the part of government providing program oversight, decisions, and direction.

Contractors and companies work under government’s oversight and according to government’s decisions and direction.  If either contractor or company does any more or less work than required, it’s a breach of the contract, so contractors essentially do what the government has listed as program requirements.  Certain contractors can advise the government, but the government always has the last word in the decision-making process.

This is the part of the process the IRT is talking about.  Just under the “Oversight and Decision Process” heading, the IRT lists six issues as sub-bullets, and elaborates on each issue.  Descriptors like “dysfunctional” oversight—no value added—confusion—ineffective decision-making—not timely or responsive—lack of trust—tell the story and enormity of the NOAA’s problem.

Officespace, by a factor of 10


If you’re curious, you can read pages 11-15 of the 2012 report.  It sounds like the workplace was very hostile.  The IRT doesn’t say the word “micromanaging,” but their story makes the NOAA environment sound as if that kind of dysfunction was happening.  Unfortunately, the story the IRT paints is very familiar—if it’s familiar to you, then I am sorry you had to work in that kind of environment.

The IRT found the NOAA senior managers were apparently confused in their program responsibilities and authority.  Making an informed guess using the IRT’s sub-bullets as the outline, I believe micromanaging would’ve caused that.  If upper management is reaching down past you, then authority is just a theory for you, nothing else.   Because there’s been a pattern established where all decisions rely on the very upper reaches of management, then program decisions are slow in coming and when the decisions are made, they aren’t effective.  Which was another problem the IRT identified.

Instead of the knowledgeable managing engineer making the decision on the spot, the engineer waits to get permission first, because any program decision made will be always overturned.  This can be attributed to a lack of trust (IRT identified this, too) from upper management of lower management and in turn lower management of the “worker bees” and contractors.  This would also account for the unnecessary meetings (reviews) of “adversarial character” (the IRT’s words), and a tremendous volume of reports.  It’s a very demoralizing and destructive cycle and one which the IRT unhesitatingly called out.

And that was just one major finding…

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