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NOAA's Reorganization and Transfer

Posted By Administrator, Monday, January 16, 2012
Updated: Thursday, February 02, 2012
NOAA’s  Arc de Triomphe?

President Obama has proposed a reorganization plan to consolidate the Federal government’s business, export and commercial functions into one agency.  The Commerce Department, to be renamed, will include the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, Export-Import Bank, Overseas Private Investment Corporation, Trade and Development Agency and Small Business Administration.  USTR, TDA and SBA have been speakers and participants in recent MAPPS meetings.

Moving out of the Commerce Department will be the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  The president proposes to move it to the Department of the Interior.

This raises a series of interesting questions for members of MAPPS and the geospatial community at large.

Our member firms interact with NOAA in a variety of ways.  The National Geodetic Survey (NGS) interfaces with virtually every surveying and mapping practitioner.  All the prime contractors, and a number of subcontractors, on NOAA’s shoreline mapping program, are MAPPS member firms. 

Virtually every prime contractor, and numerous subcontractors, in NOAA’s hydrographic survey program, is a MAPPS member firm.  The work done at NOAA’s Coastal Services Center (CSC) in Charleston, SC, again through MAPPS member firms as prime and sub contractors, and the way it utilizes the private sector for geospatial products and services to provide assistance to states and localities on the nation’s coasts, has been cited as a "best practices” model that should be more extensively emulated throughout NOAA’s National Ocean Service (NOS). The Office of Space Commercialization, once a separate entity in Commerce, was merged into NOAA during the Bush Administration.  And our member firms that operate high resolution commercial remote sensing satellites are licensed by NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS), through NOAA's Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs Office (CRSRAO), and it is the home of the Advisory Committee on Commercial Remote Sensing (ACCRS).

One of the reasons for the reorganization was first articulated by President Obama in his State of the Union Address last year, and subsequently repeated.  "The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they're in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they're in saltwater," he quipped. "And I hear it gets even more complicated once they're smoked."

There is already a proliferation of geospatial activities within the Department of the Interior.  This has been well documented in a GAO report on Federal geospatial activities (Geospatial Information: Better Coordination Needed to Identify and Reduce Duplicative Investments, GAO-04-703, June 2004) and the 1998 NAPA study (Geographic Information for the 21st Century, National Academy of Public Administration, January 1998).

In a Congressional hearing last March, the following colloquy took place between Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO) and MAPPS Executive Director John Palatiello:

"Mr. Lamborn.  Mr. Palatiello, you mentioned government duplication in the mapping area. Can you be more specific on what can be done to avoid this duplication and the expense that goes along with duplication? And I would like to say, I approve of what -- and am happy that President Obama in his State of the Union address addressed duplication. He was talking about salmon, I think, and two different programs. And he used a humorous example, but it is unfortunate that we have to, in this time of huge debts, pay money for duplicative programs. Please continue.

Mr. Palatiello. You are exactly right, and the President did say that salmon in the freshwater are the responsibility of the Interior Department, and once it reaches saltwater, it is the Commerce Department. And then he said he hears it gets more complicated once they are smoked.  Well, the same thing can be said about mapping. You want a topographic map? You go to USGS. You want to add a flood plain? You go to FEMA. You want to show the shoreline? You go to NOAA. So the same type of stovepiping and lack of coordination that the President was talking about with regard to salmon is a direct corollary to the same problem we have with regard to mapping. Now, to the Administration's credit, they have launched something called the geospatial platform, which is an attempt to build a cloud computing environment for sharing of data. And I think that is a very good step in the right direction. The problem is the structure, though. When you have 40-plus Federal agencies doing a variety of different types of mapping, that is a problem.”

If NOAA is moved to the Department of the Interior, should it be part of USGS or be a distinct entity within the department.  Should all the mapping, charting, geodesy, remote sensing and geospatial activities of NOAA be integrated with and currently spread among various agencies (USGS, BLM, NPS, FWS and others) into a consolidated geospatial bureau reporting directly to the Secretary of the Interior?

NOAA operates the NOAA Corps, a uniformed military-like workforce with officers and a personnel system that differs from regular civil service. The largest portion of the NOAA Corps officers is in the mapping, charting and geodesy activities of NOAA. Will the NOAA Corps be dismantled under the reorganization plan?  Terminating the NOAA Corps was proposed by then-Vice President Al Gore in his "Reinventing Government” program, but opposition for the NOAA Corps officers and their families forced the idea to be dropped.  Imposing the NOAA Corps on the Interior Department would be a difficult personnel transition, either by dismantling the Corps and ingesting it into the civilian personnel system, or asking Interior to simply assume responsibility for management of the NOAA Corps.

The NESDIS program, which licenses high resolution commercial remote sensing satellites systems, may not belong in Interior.  This is a regulatory and business promotion activity.  When the licensing of commercial satellite remote sensing systems was begun during the Clinton Administration, there was a heated debate over whether the licensing agency should be in the State or Commerce Department.  There was fear that there would be too much concern over foreign policy issues if this office were in State, resulting in too much regulation and restriction on the satellite operators.  Should this activity move to Interior, which is not a regulatory or business promotion agency, or remain with the renamed Department of Commerce?

Another question surrounding a move of NOAA to USGS is the fact that historically, USGS has been too willing to accept new responsibilities, but failed to secure sufficient funding to support traditional, not to mention new, responsibilities.  This ends up hurting existing programs.  This has been particularly true of the cooperative topographic mapping program in USGS, which was recently subject to re-programming to cover the deficit in operational income from LANDSAT.

When legislation to dismantle the Department of Commerce was prominent in Congress in the mid-1990’s, Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) introduced a bill (H.R. 2667, 105th Congress, 1997) that would have transferred the mapping, charting, and geodesy functions to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  The bill also provided that "the Secretary of the Army, acting through the Chief of Engineers of Army Corps of Engineers, shall terminate any functions transferred … that are performed by the private sector or obtain by contract from the private sector those functions that are commercial in nature and are necessary to carry out inherently governmental functions.”  Does the Corps of Engineers make more sense as a new home for the NOS functions of NOAA?  There are a number of reasons why such a transfer is worthy of consideration.

There are NOAA and Corps of Engineers programs that are quite similar.  NOAA conducts hydrographic surveys and publishes charts on the coasts, shorelines and Great Lakes.  The Corps of Engineers conducts hydrographic surveys and publishes charts of the inland waterway system.  While accurate data is not presently available, at the time of the introduction of Rep. Royce’s bill, the Corps of Engineers had more geodesists on staff than NOAA, even though NOAA operates the NGS.  The Corps is the most experienced procurer of mapping, charting and geodesy services in the Federal Government.  The Corps has literally written the book (actually a manual) on Brooks Act, QBS contracting, and teaches a course for government officials.  Several NOAA personnel who award contracts for shoreline mapping, hydrographic surveys and the CSC, have taken the Corps’ course, as have those in USGS.  While both NOAA and USGS have become adept at using QBS, the depth and breadth of the Corps of Engineers is unsurpassed in the Federal government. Finally, integrating the NOAA Corps into the military personnel system already in place in the Army would be significantly easier than integrating or managing the NOAA Corps in the Interior Department. 

The reorganization plan must be approved by Congress.  There will be an opportunity for the geospatial community’s voice to be heard.  Share your views and join in the discussion.

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