Sean O'Keefe: 9 Questions (Part 1)

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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 aniversary 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 2: people, cost credibility, and education
  • Part 3: Faster-Better-Cheaper, Space and Sean O'Keefe, and Self-rating


    1. The "Vision" thing: One of the first complaints that members of the space community (inside and outside of NASA) had about you was that there was an apparent lack of "vision" on your part when it came to running NASA - something that many saw as a reflection of the Bush Administration's view towards NASA as well. Many would like to see a mandate of some sort wherein NASA is set off to do something (i.e. go somewhere).

    At a recent meeting of Senior Executive Service personnel at NASA HQ you made reference to the last time NASA sought a mandate from the White House (in this case President Bush's father). This was, of course, the Space Exploration Initiative in the late 1980s. The net result of that effort was an expansive program proposed (somewhat half heartedly) by NASA to send humans to Mars for many hundreds of billions of dollars - one that would clearly require a national mandate. With regard to such mandates, you told the SES attendees that NASA has "tried such an approach once before", that it had failed, and that this Administration was justifiably leery of NASA doing so again.

    Curiously, in comments reported several weeks ago in a Maine newspaper you seemed to be suggesting that exciting days might lie ahead for NASA: "[O'Keefe] said he has been given a mandate by the Bush administration to "get back to the roots" and to recapture the entrepreneurial and pioneering spirit for which the space agency was once renowned." And that "the president and vice president both would like to see the space agency recapture the elements of the late 1950s through the early 1970s, when the space program captured the imagination of the American public."

    Q: What is the Bush Administration's long-term vision for NASA? Clearly management reform and cost accountability are at the core of its near-term vision, but is there ever going to be a destination or large scale challenge wherein such a retooled NASA sets its sights upon once again? Or is NASA's future one wherein it focuses on a grouping of smaller, more focused programs?

    Sean O'Keefe: The Vice President regularly observes that most decisions made in any Administration have a great bearing on the tools available to succeeding administrations to implement policy. With that philosophy in mind, we're embarked on a space exploration strategy to build capacity and capability to enable any mission objective informed by science and discovery agendas. In other words, we want to build the capability today to pursue any destination tomorrow that may be in our collective national interest to pursue. That requires, for example, that we beat the technical obstacles and limitations that exist today which presently preclude us from going anywhere quickly and permit humans to survive the experience.

    We've developed an integrated strategy for space across the Enterprises using a stepping stone approach which sets a foundation and builds on the next set of capabilities increasing our ability to conduct progressively more complex missions. The President's FY04 budget reflects this comprehensive strategy for programs to aggressively build capabilities to enable ambitious missions in the future.

    The preamble to the question properly alludes to the renewed management discipline and accountability emphasis at NASA to focus on these objectives. All programs must contribute to NASA's three mission areas: to understand and protect the home planet; the explore the universe and search for life; and to inspire the next generation of explorers .... as only NASA can. These are very ambitious goals, but if we stay dominantly focused on their accomplishment, we'll enable a broad range of mission opportunities that are merely a dream today.


    2. OneNASA: Shortly after you arrived at NASA you began to speak of a concept you called "One NASA". The idea was to try and change the long-standing culture of competition between NASA's Field Centers so that all NASA employees worked toward a common goal. To use the popular term, you were looking to knock down the "stovepipes" that each center had erected over the years.

    Over the past year your initial "OneNASA" idea has become much more formalized. However, in terms of concrete changes, to date OneNASA has only a handful to show: a few senior center-to-center personnel transfers; a unified email naming plan, a standard Powerpoint template for all NASA presentations, and an RFP for an expansive yet vaguely described approach to website integration.

    Q: Is this all that we can expect from "OneNASA"? What specific implementations of this concept lie ahead? You have expressed little enthusiasm for the current ‘lead center' approach. Can you site an example of how programs will be run in the future and how will this affect the way Centers are staffed, managed, and budgeted for?

    Sean O'Keefe: "OneNASA" is a more a reflection and statement about the culture of the agency. There are a few subtle symbols of this emphasis, as outlined in the preamble to this question, but the more important evidence of this culture shift is the integrated program strategy we're implementing across the agency's capabilities to achieve objectives. Our greatest accomplishments have resulted from the application of seemingly different capabilities to achieve an entirely different outcome than what any one, single, enhanced capability could ever produce.

    In this sense, a close cooperation between enterprises is essential to leverage capabilities -- Biological and Physical Research drives so much of how we use space flight capability; Earth Science and Space Science research and technology applications are inextricably linked for different missions, but comparable platforms; Aerospace Technology is leading the development of new ISTP space transportation assets for Space Flight operations to support the science objectives; aeronautics advances that enhance the safety and security of the flying public have great bearing on new space flight designs; and Education and Safety initiatives have a relationship to everything we do across the agency; and on and on. As such, there is little that one enterprise and one center is responsible for that doesn't have a relationship to some other on-going activity around the agency in support of the three NASA mission areas. The result of this coordination and cooperation will always be greater than the arithmetic sum of the parts contributing.

    But "OneNASA" is also about changing the errant notion that one center's gain has to result in another center's loss. Competition is a good thing -- but not when it creates a mindset among all of us in public service that this is a zero sum game and there must be a winner and loser. Centers which exhibit a capacity to enhance and develop core competencies may be responsible for the larger systems integration efforts across the agency's capability. That isn't at another Center's expense -- it's an important role to assure that we bring our best talent to bear on given challenges. There is no inconsistency in the strategy to competitively select the best approach to achieve an objective, then work collaboratively across the agency to carry it out.

    Enhanced quality of common support services across the agency is also evidence of "OneNASA." It is the part that most folks will immediately notice. We spend more than 15% of our resources on Information Technology related systems. We're trying to get the most yield from this investment to make information readily available for decision making -- instead of continued investment to build bridges between incompatible systems. For example, there will be an impact on everyone when the Integrated Financial Management Program is implemented. But currently, the reviews from around the agency are mixed -- largely because the system is different and we're all naturally suspicious of uniformity. This is an understandable human reaction to anything "new" which affects the conduct of an organization. Nonetheless, this can't be an excuse for inaction. This "OneNASA" initiative will permit us all to have sorely needed, higher confidence in the data that serves all our functions. It will be timely, accurate, responsive and substantially less expensive to operate than the multitude of incompatible systems we currently operate.


    3. Freedom to Manage: Over the past decade NASA has endured more than its fair share of management fads, mantras, and reorganization attempts: TQM, ISO 9000, Faster-Better-Cheaper, Red Team/Blue Team, Zero Base Review, Strategic Restructuring Review - and, of course, "Reinventing Government". All of this was flavored with a sprinkling of RIF threats and buyouts. The net result after a decade of managerial tumult is mixed. Now NASA has embraced yet another management theme "Freedom to Manage aka "F2M" - NASA's localized implementation of the President's "Management Agenda", a plan you helped to draft while at OMB.

    To date F2M has mostly been a number of proposals which would make the management of human resources more flexible than has been the case in the past (see http://f2m.nasa.gov/progress.htm).

    Q: Can the NASA civil service and contractor workforce expect more change in the way programs are managed in the years ahead - or is more stability on the Horizon? Can you cite specific examples of how things will no longer be done at NASA?

    Sean O'Keefe: "Freedom to Manage" is a concept the President initiated to encourage all of us to question why we do things the way we do. So often, we attribute stupid ways of doing business to some unspecified legal limitation or some untitled rule. On examination, we often find that we have the means to get rid of the impediments to doing business and efficient operations and it rarely requires changing the law or significantly changing the rules of good government. Often it turns out that some stupid practices emerge from the unintended consequence of enforcing a standard. No one intended that folks with a NASA badge be denied access to any NASA Center unless that Center originated the badge -- but that's the way the "rule" was implemented until the inconsistency was noted and we changed it. Somewhere in our agency history an excessive control mentality prompted us to institute "timekeepers" throughout the agency. That practice suggested we don't trust each other to be professional -- and nothing could be further from the truth, so we dispensed with that "control freak" policy. And we shouldn't be surprised to find out that this practice is still going on somewhere around the agency --there's always someone who doesn't get the memo -- but it needs to stop. When we find such policies, we all need to point them out, otherwise, we keep tolerating that which we think doesn't make sense.

    So, a good part of the "Freedom to Manage" initiative is to encourage folks to identify practices we consider annoying, inefficient, ineffective, or just plain dumb. Once identified, there is often a remedy. Now, sometimes there is a good reason, a larger imperative that justifies some consequence on cost effectiveness or efficiency -- small and minority business preference in contracting may have initial consequences of additional expense, but often yield longer term improvements for larger public policy gains for entrepreneurship, equity, and new, smarter ways to do business. As a public, we have concluded this is a desirable goal and we're prepared to do more to achieve it. In such cases, raising questions about the consequences is useful if for no other reason than to remind ourselves of the larger, more important objectives we seek to attain. One person's idea of a dumb rule may be another's idea of sound public policy -- OK, but let's rediscover what it is that prompts such mixed reaction and either reaffirm the policy or change it.

    Much of the inefficiency we tolerate comes from folklore, urban legend or reasons folks have long forgotten. In those cases, "Freedom to Manage" is a forum to identify the symptom, find the source or cause of the action, and develop a collective decision to correct it by changing the rule, regulation, practice or, in some case, even the law. So in this regard, we should always be on the lookout for ways to change the way we do business if it serves a better outcome. And use the informal process we've constructed to enjoin those issues and solve them. There isn't an office for "F2M" -- our Chief of Staff, Courtney Stadd is leading a group of folks coordinating these issues, sorting the laundry lists of emerging ideas. They are hard working professionals -- with day jobs! -- from all around the agency committed to fixing those rules we think lead to bad practices. So, we shouldn't aspire to "stability," as suggested in the question, if this perpetuates practices we consider mindless.

    Again, this is not a top-down driven exercise. The good ideas emerging from the Freedom to Manage forum come from across the agency where programs are managed, research is being conducted and science is pursued. This is where the real impact of organization practice and convention is felt most acutely. To continue progress, we all have to participate. Whining and grousing does nothing to fix the problem and often it isn't even therapeutic. Imagine what we can do when we all help find solutions in addition to highlighting problems.

  • Part 2: people, cost credibility, and education


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