National Nuclear Security Administration:

Laboratories' Indirect Cost Management Has Improved, but Additional Opportunities Exist

GAO-13-534: Published: Jun 28, 2013. Publicly Released: Jun 28, 2013.

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What GAO Found

The National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) management and operating (M&O) contractors differ in how they classify and allocate indirect costs at NNSA laboratories. Although different approaches are allowed by Cost Accounting Standards, these differences limit the ability to compare program costs across the laboratories. Recognizing the limitations of its current cost data, the Department of Energy (DOE) and NNSA are implementing the Institutional Cost Reporting initiative intended to create a standardized report of certain costs, including many indirect costs. However, DOE is uncertain how it will use the data gathered by this initiative, and these efforts may provide only limited improvements because the data will continue to only be reported at an aggregate level.

NNSA examines M&O contractors’ models for allocating indirect costs for compliance with Cost Accounting Standards’ requirements at least annually, which helps ensure accuracy. NNSA has identified instances when these models did not comply with these requirements, but NNSA has worked with M&O contractors to address these issues. NNSA generally relies on the M&O contractors’ internal audits, however, to assess whether M&O contractors’ day-to-day cost allocation practices conform to disclosed cost allocation models. NNSA reviews some summary data to independently assess day-to-day compliance with Cost Accounting Standards but does not conduct independent audits. DOE’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) has audit authority at NNSA laboratories. OIG officials stated that the frequency and scope for conducting audits to assess contractors’ compliance with Cost Accounting Standards should be based on the level of risk. However, NNSA and OIG officials and M&O contractors hold varying opinions regarding the level of risk that inaccurate indirect cost allocation practices at the laboratories pose. In the absence of formal, periodic risk assessments, NNSA may not have a well-documented basis for its decisions regarding the type, timing, and extent of future monitoring or oversight.

NNSA reviews M&O contractors’ cost data and other information to assess the reasonableness of their costs, including indirect costs. NNSA also uses other means to help ensure the reasonableness of these costs. For example, NNSA’s contracts require M&O contractors to regularly benchmark their costs to other contractors and industry. These requirements, however, do not specify the areas that should be examined, how frequently benchmarking should occur, and what process should be used for implementing any needed corrective actions. As a result, M&O contractor efforts to benchmark costs varied across laboratories.

Why GAO Did This Study

NNSA, a semiautonomous agency within DOE, oversees the nation’s nuclear security programs. M&O contractors manage NNSA’s facilities, including its national security laboratories––Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, and Sandia. Each year, M&O contractors spend billions of dollars to manage and operate these laboratories. Costs include both direct costs—which can be identified with a specific objective or program—and indirect costs, such as management, administrative, and facility costs. Federal Cost Accounting Standards give M&O contractors flexibility in how costs are classified as direct or indirect and allocated to programs.

GAO was asked to review M&O contractor indirect cost management. GAO examined (1) whether laboratory M&O contractors' practices differ for allocating indirect costs and, if so, how; (2) the extent to which NNSA ensures that laboratory M&O contractors’ allocated indirect costs are accurate; and (3) the extent to which NNSA ensures that laboratory M&O contractors’ indirect costs are reasonable. GAO reviewed NNSA and laboratory M&O contractor data and documents and spoke with DOE and NNSA officials and M&O contractors.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends DOE clarify the uses of the data gathered through the Institutional Cost Reporting initiative, conduct periodic risk assessments, and incorporate more specific requirements for benchmarking in its laboratory M&O contracts. DOE generally agreed with GAO’s recommendations.

For more information, contact David C. Trimble at (202) 512-3841 or trimbled@gao.gov.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To help improve its ability to oversee M&O contractor costs, including indirect costs, for its laboratories and make more effective use of DOE and contractor resources, the Secretary of Energy should take--or, as appropriate, direct the Administrator of NNSA to clarify how data collected by the Institutional Cost Reporting initiative will be used.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To help improve its ability to oversee M&O contractor costs, including indirect costs, for its laboratories and make more effective use of DOE and contractor resources, the Secretary of Energy should take--or, as appropriate, direct the Administrator of NNSA to direct the Office of Field Financial Management (OFFM) to conduct formal, periodic risk assessments of M&O contractors' compliance with Cost Accounting Standards by using (1) laboratory M&O contractor internal audit results, (2) OIG audit results, and (3) other relevant information obtained through ongoing monitoring and oversight to provide a well-documented basis for its future monitoring and oversight, including determining the appropriate level of OIG audit assistance needed.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To help improve its ability to oversee M&O contractor costs, including indirect costs, for its laboratories and make more effective use of DOE and contractor resources, the Secretary of Energy should take--or, as appropriate, direct the Administrator of NNSA to incorporate more specific benchmarking requirements into future laboratory contracts--similar to the benchmarking requirements used by DOE to assess and manage pension and post-retirement benefit costs--including which costs should be benchmarked, how frequently benchmarking should occur, and what process should be used to ensure corrective actions are taken, as needed.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

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