GAO report finds BSEE leaders relied more on consultants than staff

The US Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement’s leadership has started several key strategic initiatives to improve its offshore safety and environmental oversight, but its limited efforts to obtain and incorporate ideas from within the agency have hindered its progress, a US Government Accountability Office investigation found.

“I think a lot of this resulted from mistrust at headquarters of people in the regional offices, particularly for the Gulf of Mexico, and heavy reliance on outside consultants instead,” Franklin W. Rusco, the congressional watchdog’s natural resources and environment director, told a US House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on Mar. 21.

His report, which GAO publicly released as the hearing convened, said that in 2012, BSEE’s leadership began developing a risk-based inspection initiative to identify high-risk production facilities and assess their safety systems and management controls to supplement its mandatory annual regulatory compliance inspections.

During pilot testing in 2016, several deficiencies—including the usefulness of its facility risk-assessment model and unclear inspection protocols—caused the agency to halt the pilot. Bureau officials told GAO that during the initiative’s development, BSEE’s headquarters did not effectively obtain and incorporate information from regional employees with long-standing experience in previous risk-based inspection efforts.

That could have helped BSEE identify deficiencies earlier in the risk-based inspection initiative’s development process, Rusco told the subcommittee. “I believe that if BSEE leadership had relied less on outside consultants and more on its employees in the field to build a solid inspection plan, the job would have been done right the first time,” he said.

Rusco emphasized that overall, BSEE has made much progress in improving federal offshore oil and gas safety and environmental enforcement since its formation following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon incident that took 11 lives and resulted in a subsequent massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He gave more of the credit to the agency’s regional office employees than to its leaders who started several key strategic initiatives to improve BSEE’s internal management since 2013, but have successfully implemented none of them.

Turned to outside consultant

After BSEE's leadership identified the importance of developing performance measures in its 2012-15 strategic plan, it began one of three attempts to develop performance measures in July 2014 by hiring a contractor to develop measures, GAO’s report said. The agency terminated this contract in January 2015 after determining a need to complete its internal reorganization before developing such measures.

A second effort to develop performance measures started in December 2015, using the same consultant, and yielded 12 performance measures in March 2016, but BSEE did not implement them, in part, because data did not exist to use the measures, GAO’s investigation found. By the time BSEE received this consultant’s report, it had already begun a third effort to internally develop performance measures.

It had identified 17 draft performance measures as of November 2016, but BSEE leadership missed repeated deadlines to review them, the report said. It said that BSEE officials told GAO that after leadership approval, the bureau plans to pilot-test these measures and develop others.

But GAO’s report asserted that BSEE leadership has not demonstrated continuing oversight and accountability for implementing internal management initiatives, as evidenced by its limited progress implementing key strategies. It said that without higher-level Department of the Interior oversight addressing leadership commitment deficiencies within BSEE, the agency is unlikely to succeed in implementing internal management initiatives.

A second witness conceded that some BSEE leaders had problems trusting regional employees, but added that efforts are under way to change this. “[Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke] has said he is committed to relying more on people working, as he said, on the front lines,” Richard T. Cardinale, DOI’s acting assistant secretary for lands and minerals management, told the subcommittee.

Cardinale said BSEE has improved its employee recruitment and retention practices, helped in part by several companies closing during the recent oil and gas industry downturn and more qualified workers moving to the federal government. An inspector certification program is being developed, and conferences are being held, he added. “I think management focus is facing outward toward the field now,” he said.

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