GAO: Chemical Safety Board Needs More Oversight

The Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) has made\r\nlittle progress in cutting the investigative backlog, according to the General Accounting Office (GAO).

The Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) has made little progress in cutting the investigative backlog that has plagued its first 2 1/2 years of existence, according to a report released last month by the General Accounting Office (GAO). And when it comes to resolving the bitter management dispute that a board member admits has hurt the CSB''s productivity, there has been no progress at all.

In fact, the GAO report revealed the disagreement between former Chairman Paul Hill and the other three board members appears to have grown worse: in May the three board members asked President Clinton to remove Hill from his position as a board member.

The GAO recommended the hiring of an inspector general (IG) to provide "ongoing institutional oversight of the board." The GAO report also faulted the board''s interim investigative protocol for not ensuring "objectivity and balance in its investigative work," and recommended the adoption of policies that would promote "impartiality and thoroughness."

In an official response to the GAO report, Board member Isadore Rosenthal said the CSB agrees with the two GAO recommendations. He pointed out the board has already sought assistance from an existing IG, and will continue this effort.

"As an interim step," Rosenthal said, "we have posted information on the GAO''s FraudNET in common areas at the CSB so that employees can easily report allegations of fraud, waste, abuse, or mismanagement of federal funds to an independent entity."

The board also vowed to consider implementing the additional procedures identified by the GAO to ensure impartial investigations. Rosenthal defended the three investigation reports the CSB has completed, noting that all three have been praised for their objectivity and fairness.

A CSB spokesman said the praise of the board''s investigation reports took the form of oral comments at public meetings from stakeholders. In addition, the spokesperson said CSB reports are routinely scrutinized by experts and have never been challenged on technical grounds.

The GAO report was not all bad news for the beleaguered safety board. The GAO recognized the CSB underwent a major management shake-up in January when Hill was removed as chair, and praised the current leadership for addressing the investigative backlog.

For example, the board issued formal written procedures for awarding and managing contracts in December of last year, and is currently revising its criteria for selecting incidents to investigate.

Whether these changes will lead to improvements quickly enough to satisfy congressional critics of the troubled safety board remains to be seen.

The GAO praised the priorities established by the new management of the CSB, specifically the hiring of six new investigators and the completion of three investigative reports in fiscal year 2000. But the GAO also warned that achieving these goals this year is critical if the CSB is to demonstrate that it is a "viable" agency.

The CSB has not begun a single new investigation since March 1999.

Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that funds the CSB, has already threatened to oppose funding the CSB if it does not start producing.

Summary of GAO Report

What follows is a summary of the results of the GAO''s July 2000 report on the CSB. The complete text of the report can be found at the GAO Web site,www.gao.gov.

  • The CSB''s interim investigative protocol does not include needed policies and procedures that would help ensure objectivity and balance in its investigative work, such as those covering conflicts of interest. The GAO recommended that the CSB adopt clear policies and procedures on potential conflicts of interest and consider other policies and procedures used by some other investigative agencies that also promote investigative impartiality and thoroughness.
  • The operational problems that the board has experienced in its 2 1/2 years of existence -- including governance and management conflicts, contracting expenditures of limited value, and the lack of basic operating policies and procedures -- suggest that ongoing institutional oversight would be beneficial.
  • Many staff vacancies exist in the Office of Investigations and Safety Programs. Currently the board has 27 staff, including 4 board members. The board expects to grow to a staff of 40 by October of this year, with almost all of the growth in the areas of investigations and safety.
  • Of the 11 investigations begun by the CSB, three have been completed, but only one since March of 1999. None have been initiated since March of 1999. Nevertheless, a number of CSB recommendations from the three completed reports have been implemented.
  • Some contracting activities have provided limited benefits. Since it began operations in January 1998, the board has obligated about $4.7 million to 13 contracts of $100,000. A big part of these obligations -- $2.4 million -- were devoted to information technology, compared to $1.4 million for investigative support. According to board officials, the agency received little benefit for this money. These contracts were made under former Chairman Paul Hill''s management, and current management has cut the budget for information technology by $1.3 million for the current fiscal year.
  • The board''s new management has made some progress in complying with congressional directives to improve its policies on awarding and managing contracts and for selecting and performing investigations.
  • We found that the board''s investigative protocol lacks specificity in some areas that would help ensure objectivity and balance in investigative work. The CSB has no regulatory or enforcement powers, so its investigations must be thorough and impartial in order to convince a wide range of stakeholders to implement the board''s recommendations. The board''s protocol does not address adequately 1) a potential for conflicts of interest; 2) the reporting of substantive disagreements among investigative team members; 3) the reporting of minority views of Board members in investigative reports; 4) a clear external review policy.
  • Conflicts of interest may include board employees and contractors having a financial interest associated with the facility being investigated or having been previously employed at the facility. Because the board has recently determined that it will focus its recruitment efforts on individuals with the experience in the oil and chemical process industries -- ones that it will likely be investigating -- it will be increasingly important for the board to have clear, consistent conflict of interest guidance.
  • While the board utilizes independent expert assistance and peer review, its investigative protocol does not provide a clear policy statement on its use of independent peer review.
  • The board''s experience to date suggests the need for ongoing, institutional oversight of its operations and programs. Specifically, the board''s short history is dominated by management conflicts, failures, and inefficiencies that have resulted in the board''s applying its scarce staffing and funding resources to programs and activities that have provided little benefit while its primary investigative mission has faltered.

The board''s initial steps since the management realignments in December 1999 and January 2000 appear to be appropriately targeted to addressing the problems we identified in April 1999. The priorities the Board has established for fiscal year 2000, including the hiring of six qualified investigators and the completion of three investigative reports, are critical ones that the board must accomplish to demonstrate that it is a viable agency capable of accomplishing its important safety mission in an efficient and effective manner.

by James Nash

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