Sean O’Keefe: 9 Questions (Part 2)

By Keith Cowing
January 30, 2003
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Sean O’Keefe: 9 Questions (Part 2)
Sean O'Keefe

Editor’s note: Several weeks ago I asked NASA Adminstrator Sean O’Keefe if he’d be willing to answer some questions. The occasion was his first anniversary on the job. He agreed to do so.

In phrasing these questions, I sought to put aside those topics which had already been asked multiple times (Space Station Costs, etc.) and focus on issues that have been raised by NASA Watch readers (in one way or another) over the past year. The questions are presented below exactly as I put them to O’Keefe. With the exception of a sanity check by NASA Deputy Administrator Fred Gregory, Sean O’Keefe answered these questions by himself without circulating the text around official internal NASA channels. As such, what you see below is 100% Sean O’Keefe.

Keith Cowing, Editor

NASA Watch and SpaceRef

  • Part 1: The “Vision” thing; “OneNASA”; and “Freedom to Manage”
  • Part 3: Faster-Better-Cheaper, Space and Sean O’Keefe, and Self-rating

    4. People: As mentioned above, NASA’s civil service and contractor
    workforce has had to endure a decade of constrained budgets, layoffs,
    and buyouts – and the negative effect this has often had on their
    morale and productivity. As a direct result of these activities NASA
    has lost critical skills and has failed to adequately recruit a new
    generation of employees. Moreover, you often mention that a third of
    the NASA workforce is eligible to retire within the next 5 years. Left
    unchecked all of these factors could conspire to leave NASA less
    capable of carrying out its mandate at a time when you seek to
    reinvigorate the agency. Add outsourcing to the mix and a lot of
    uncertainty could result.

    Q: How are you addressing the interlinked issues of skill mix,
    retirement, recruiting, and mentoring? Will NASA be mounting
    recruitment campaigns, buyouts, and alternate employment approaches –
    if so when will they start? As NASA moves down the OneNASA path, will
    there be civil service downsizing and outsourcing to the private sector
    as duplicative efforts at multiple field centers are dealt with?

    Sean O’Keefe: NASA is hardly unique in our challenge to recruit and retain well trained, competent, professional colleagues. Across the federal government there is a general trend toward a “graying” workforce and a looming retirement eligible bulge over the next few years. This didn’t happen overnight. It is the result of policies pursued in the past which result in the very condition described in the question preamble. As mentioned earlier, the Vice President often observes that decisions made today have less impact on present activity, but have profound affect on future leadership options. There is little to be gained by doing forensic work on past decisions that led to such imbalances. The present condition is an actuarial reality. So we are in hot pursuit of gathering the tools to help today and in the future.

    The first item the President’s selected for his management agenda is the Strategic Management of Human Capital — a term coined by Dave Walker, the Comptroller General (head of GAO), to describe the imperative for the leadership to think more broadly about this challenge rather assuming the personnel department will worry about. The President became convinced that the senior leadership of every department and agency needed to focus on this condition if we are to see any improvement now and in the future. Now, some folks think there’s a hidden agenda to force further reductions in the federal workforce. If that were true, the best management approach to achieve that objective would be …. do nothing. The actuarial tables tell you that the accelerated retirement rates in the near future would achieve reductions in force without any effort. To the contrary, the Administration is actively pursuing recruitment, retention, a professional development tools to help affect the workforce balance today and in the future.

    At NASA our first step was to develop the Human Capital strategic plan to assess our agency workforce skill needs, prescribe a path for achieving outcomes, and identifying the tools we need to get there. It’s been approved by all the relevant actors within the Administration. On the famous “management scorecard” we are “green” for the quality of the approved plan and — significantly — the FY04 President’s budget scorecard rates our condition as “yellow” on implementing our initiative which is an upgrade from the “red” score we got a year ago. Vicki Novak and our Human Resources folks have done an amazing job driving the plan to implementation and making measurable progress. Most importantly, our Center Directors have embraced the plan and are actively looking for opportunities to use the tools we have identified that are currently available to us to help shape the workforce balance needs — professional development opportunities, mobility options, retention incentives and a coordinated recruiting plan to tick off just a few.

    And we haven’t stopped there. Last summer we forwarded a package of legislative initiatives to the Congress to enhance the use of Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA) authorities, expand and increase retention bonus authorities, lifting the pay cap for critical need skills, establishing a Scholarship for Service program to attract future engineers and scientists, and pilot alternative compensation structures patterned after other federal agency “best practice” experiences. In developing the package we garnered unprecedented support from all the relevant players within the Administration, so NASA’s initiative was not as a solo actor. In the last few days we’ve reached agreement on the construct of the legislation and fully expect to see its inclusion in the upcoming omnibus bill wrap up the Congress is working now. We plan to get it all. But, what we don’t get, we’ll be back to Congress asking again as part of the new budget proposal.

    In the weeks and months ahead, we should all be looking for evidence of vigorous use of existing retention tools and aggressive implementation of new tools soon to be enacted. This winter and spring will see evidence of agency-wide coordination of recruiting — and next fall a very concerted campaign to actively enlist future graduating classes of engineers, scientists and management professionals to our ranks. And on-going should be a renewed commitment to professional development to assure that we are always prepared to conquer the technical hurdles, proficiently manage through the program challenges, and pursue the exploration opportunities we’ve been charged with.

    5. Cost credibility: There is an urban myth of sorts at NASA HQ that
    you showed up a few days after your nomination in 2001 and asked to sit
    in front of a computer and see NASA’s books so as to gauge the current
    status of NASA’s finances. So the story goes, you were not able to see
    such a system since it simply did not exist – and this left you less
    than pleased.

    Over the past decade, even the most casual NASA watcher would be aware
    of the fact that NASA has a long standing credibility problem when it
    comes to costs. NASA’s answer: the IFMP – Integrated Financial
    Management Plan. In 2000, only weeks after NASA’s previous
    Administrator had assured Congress that the cost of the International
    Space Station was under control, a cost overrun of more than $4 billion
    suddenly appeared. After spending hundreds of millions of dollars and
    many years, all NASA’s IFMP had to show for itself was a balkanized
    accounting system which did not work any better than what it sought to
    replace. Moreover the IFMP never saw the ISS cost overrun coming.

    Q: How has your revamping of NASA’s bookkeeping system sought to fix
    these long-standing problems? You have taken cost accountability on as
    your major task at NASA with a goal of one day having near- realtime
    availability of reliable budget information. When will your new
    accounting system be fully operational such that you can view data 24
    hours old instead of a quarter old? A phrase you often use to describe
    NASA’s cost accountability predicament is “being in the penalty box” –
    how close is NASA to getting back out onto the ice again?

    Sean O’Keefe: Much of what we do at NASA turns on our credibility to promise what we think we can do, and deliver on what we promise. We will always be hobbled by hits to our credibility if we don’t know what our efforts require in terms of resources — people talent, infrastructure, and financing. The Integrated Financial Management Program is our key to achieving visibility over these needs. This will help us assess those needs and articulate them with greater confidence in the accuracy and timeliness of the information.

    Contrary to the premise of the question, IFMP is just now in the implementation phase. The core financial module is the first element of the program. It’s in place at Marshall and Glenn, soon to be following in the coming weeks at Johnson, Kennedy, and headquarters and completed at all our centers by the end of June — this summer, for the first time, a fully operational core financial system common throughout the agency. Thereafter, modules will be introduced to integrate personnel, inventory and other common support information visibility. Within this year we’ll all have access to timely, accurate and reliable cost information that will facilitate decision making, help inform trade offs, and give us the initial framework for developing performance metrics.

    This is an ambitious management effort, but it really is the baseline for basic, modern management practices. Implementing this effort is the equivalent of the fundamental management (and football!) principle of “three yards and a cloud of dust.” Each step of the way has to be carefully tended and a lot of hard work by Pat Ciganer’s technical and management professionals is required to make sure its done right. Every Center Director has a well informed understanding of the progress and steps required to make it work — they’ve all learned more about IFMP systems than they ever thought they would (or wanted to, actually). This isn’t a cake walk, but it is also a very basic management imperative to restore our agency’s credibility. We can’t rely on a guess at what programs will require. The best we can get out of the present kluge of incompatible, stand alone, unique systems is data that is at least three months old — assuming the hand manipulated information is uniformly accurate. A tall assumption at best. OK — maybe we should celebrate the past contributions of these great legacy systems, sing songs of the exploits and heroism of the original designers, toast the remarkable longevity of these aged work horses — but let’s do that AND get on with implementing modern practices.

    Results are already evident. Everyone across the agency will feel some effect from the IFMP implementation. We need to stay with it, keep each other informed on the progress, strap in for the inevitable bumps in the road, and work diligently to achieve the objective. The reward is a raised probability that we can deliver on what we said we’d do because our understanding of what it will take will be so much better informed. And this timely, accurate information access will inevitably change the way we do business every day. The more we understand what’s required, the better the debate will be setting goals, picking options and measuring outcomes.

    Along the way folks are already noticing a marked change and improvement. Much hard work from Bill Gerstenmaier’s program management team has yielded recognition and approval from Tom Young’s task force examining the International Space Station. Among the many management improvements implemented is a cost estimating system which will tie in directly to the IFM effort to record program execution results. Today we can attest to the resource requirements and actuals with much greater confidence as a result of these efforts. It gave the President the confidence to send the FY 03 budget amendment last November on the Integrated Space Transportation Plan.

    Similarly, we’ve just completed the annual audit of the agency financial statement and have earned an unqualified “clean” opinion. Coming off the heels of last year’s “disclaimed” opinion, this is an astonishing turn around. It’s a testimonial to the tireless work of Gwen Brown and her DCFO staff and Ken Winter who stepped in when we really needed him most. The recent audit points to some material weaknesses we can and will conquer next time to achieve the rarified standing of a model agency. And the IG will be keeping us honest to pursue that goal with deliberation. The President’s budget chapter on NASA clearly identifies the marked progress and, while we’re still “red” on the scorecard, we’re within striking range of an upgrade given these positive developments.

    So, while we are still serving out the time, we’re up off the penalty box bench and getting ready to take the ice!

    6. Education: In addition to cost and management reforms, one of the
    earliest themes to emerge in your tenure at NASA has been a renewed-
    and expanded focus on education. This manifested itself in a vigorous
    revival of the Educator Mission Specialist program and the appointment
    of senior education advisors at NASA HQ. It has also affected the new
    vision NASA has adopted for itself. Despite this recent emphasis, NASA
    has a decades-long relationship with teachers and students at all
    education levels. Given the recent flurry of activity, and NASA’s
    previous efforts, one has to assume that some existing things were
    being fixed while new ones were being launched.

    Q: What existing educational programs will be expanded? What was not
    working in the way NASA operated its educational programs and how is
    this being rectified? What new activities can we expect to see
    launched in 2003 and beyond? How will this affect the way NASA
    conducts extramural research?

    Sean O’Keefe: Education has been at the forefront of our charter since the agency’s founding in 1958. Tracing the early history of NASA there is a clear lineage of our current policies to forge relationships with university research activity and to leverage technology solutions through a variety of education partnerships. Our renewed focus on education is to build on these long standing relationships and coordinate our efforts thoroughly among the enterprises. That’s one element of what’s new in our approach. Until we established the Education Enterprise, the education activities were conducted by each of the respective enterprises to support the specific science, research and operational activities — coordination was an afterthought or happy coincidence at best. Associate Administrator for Education, Adena Loston and the impressive staff she has assembled will not change the content of activities, but look at opportunities to leverage the partnerships in a more agency inclusive manner.

    From this set of established relationships, add the opportunity to introduce a “Scholarship for Service” program to recruit graduate students and undergrads working with Principal Investigators on a range of engineering and science research projects conducted on behalf of the agency. This is a largely untapped source of talent pool to help address our human capital challenges with folks conversant with the NASA mission and projects. As previously mentioned, this is a great way to implement the legislative authority we are seeking and expect to get soon. Moreover, its an opportunity to continually infuse diversity within our workforce by tapping the longstanding relationships developed with University Research Centers at HBCUs, Hispanic and Native American institutions while assuring that the research yield contributes to enterprise science and engineering objectives. The Education Enterprise will help assure that we haven’t just left these important objectives to chance and, instead, develop a concerted strategy to achieve these goals.

    Another piece of the education initiative is to coordinate the wide range of education/student outreach programs conducted at each center. There are several “best practice” techniques to accomplish the mission of inspiring the next generation of explorers — student group events, rocket contests, space days, and a host of self-started efforts that touch the lives of countless school children. The Education Enterprise will be the forum for coordinating knowledge of these practices and encouraging their export across the full expanse of agency activities.

    The emphasis on education begins at the highest level of the Administration. The President’s commitment to math and science education is a natural catalyst for all of us to consider how we can best advance these important objectives for our future — and motivate future explorers who will help find solutions to persistent problems and retain our global leadership. Countless commissions have pointed to the imperative to arrest the declining interest in math, science, engineering and technology related professions. NASA can help reverse that decline if we just target what we have in a very deliberate way.

    There are also a wide range of informal relationships we have developed with institutions dedicated to education — museums, science centers, fifty Challenger Centers and countless foundations passionately focused on inspiring the wonders of exploration to our nation’s youth — and wowing all the rest of us grown ups for the bargain! The Education Enterprise is dedicated to actively working with all these institutions to assure that we make available to the public all the exciting work we have developed and the exciting discoveries we have made. At every center there are fascinating jewels that are sometimes firmly enclosed under a bushel barrel — not because we don’t want to let the public see them, but because we don’t always think of the external education venues that would thrive and prosper by access to the information/material. By and large, our centers are populated with folks who are focused on the project research at hand, as they should be. The Education Enterprise fills that important role of helping to point out those jewels and focus on how they can become inspiration tools in the hands of professional educators. And why not — the public has paid for it. We owe it to those we serve to get the maximum yield possible.

    The engine to ignite the natural curiosity of our nation’s youth is the Educator Astronaut initiative. Nearly twenty years ago we rededicated ourselves to the importance of education when NASA introduced the Teacher in Space program. Christa McAuliffe was, is and always will be the first teacher in space. While this goal ended in tragedy for Mission Commander Dick Scobee’s heroic Challenger crew and their loved ones, the dream has endured. The sacrifice of those seven brave, amazingly impressive people will always be in our memory which helps define the very soul of our agency. So much of what we do today — our commitment to safety, our acceptance of accountability, and our renewed commitment to exploration — was defined by their sacrifice. And among those commitments is a deep abiding conviction that we can inspire the next generation of explorers.

    The Educator Astronaut effort is quite simply to recruit those who can translate the excitement and wonder of space travel and exploration into our nation’s classrooms. Barbara Morgan’s flight with the crew of STS-118 in November will be the continuation of a dream to bring this experience to life to those who will pick up the mantle of exploration and carry it into the future. She and her colleagues who will follow as Educator Astronauts will connect with youth who have yet to make choices about professional opportunities — and motivate some to pursue engineering, science and technology careers they might never have considered. And if we do our jobs right today, we’ll have developed the enabling technologies to permit the generation they will help inspire tomorrow to go to the exotic destinations we merely dream of today. The stakes are that great and that important.

    After only a week, the Educator Astronaut program has attracted a thousand nominations. Thousands of school children, teachers, and the just plain curious have logged on to NASA websites to learn more about what we do. If there was ever a testimonial to the depth of interest in NASA, this is certainly it! And that select few educators who will enter the Astronaut corps next year will join colleagues who come from the long lineage of test pilots like the early days of space exploration, but also more dominantly today the professional engineers, scientists, physicians, astronomers, marine biologists and Mike Massimino — who arguably gave up a great career prospect as a comedian — in the noble quest of exploration that has dominated human history. And besides — educators communicate far better than most of us.

    We all need to contribute to this renewed mission focus. It isn’t just a new portfolio that the Education Enterprise will worry about so the rest of us can go about our business. It’s like safety — it ought to enter our minds with everything we do. For example, the enthusiasm for renewing our commitment to education was sparked by the persistence of Paul Pastorek, our General Counsel …. not the kind of portfolio one would naturally associate with education — go ahead, muster up the lawyer jokes! Without a doubt, Paul’s a seasoned lawyer who every day participates in the range of legal challenges that face our agency, but he also concentrates on wider agency responsibilities. He has a long history of dedicating time and attention to improving education — in addition to being an exemplary lawyer throughout his career. With that bias in mind when he came to NASA just a year ago, he pushed us to think about the great contributions we make to education, and helped build the path we are on today. He made a difference. We can all make a difference by thinking about what we can do to advance this important mission objective.

  • Part 3: Faster-Better-Cheaper, Space and Sean O’Keefe, and Self-rating

  • SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.