National Weather Service financial system rollout less predictable than the weather

Last year, the Commerce Department rolled out a new financial system meant to improve financial management. Things have not gone as planned.

Last year, the Commerce Department rolled out a new financial system meant to improve financial management. Things have not gone as planned. Implementation issues have resulted in National Weather Service employees not getting reimbursed and electric companies shutting off power to equipment used by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Bloomberg Government reporter Jack Fitzpatrick broke this story late last week and spoke about it on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin with Federal News Network’s Eric White.

Interview Transcript: 

Jack Fitzpatrick The Department of Commerce was instituting, and still is in the process of instituting a new financial system that their payments go through. They started at NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which includes the National Weather Service, which a lot of people are familiar with, and they put it in place last October. We still don’t know the full extent of how bad this was, but long story short, it did not let payments go through. It didn’t actually let the money go out of the system for invoices or travel reimbursements to their own employees. In thousands of cases, totaling at least tens of millions of dollars, according to an inspector general report. And that caused some significant issues. They weren’t paying their electric bills in some places. I spoke to the manager of an airport in Georgia who unexpectedly lost access to a NOAA system that provides weather information to pilots. It was fortunate that weather wasn’t very bad that day, otherwise, flights might have been redirected. There was an instance where NOAA Weather Radio went down in Alabama because they lost power to their radio transmitter in Cullman, Alabama. There is a meteorologist who travels to the site of natural disasters who for more than five months could not have traveled because he had maxed out his government travel card and wasn’t getting the money to actually pay that off. So some significant issues, essentially, based on NOAA not being able to pay its bills for a number of months.

Eric White Does the agency know what the root cause is, or was it just simple growing pains of bringing in a new system.

Jack Fitzpatrick If they know for sure they have not said publicly. The inspector general report on this said that on the invoice side, there was a data mismatch between this new system at NOAA and the system that the Treasury Department uses. I have followed up with the Inspector General’s office to say, hey, can you explain what exactly the data mismatch was? They have directed me to the Department of Commerce. NOAA has not explained, and the employees affected have not gotten an explanation. So when you talk to a meteorologist or a local emergency management person who’s affected by the issue, they still have not been told, hey, here’s how this got messed up and here’s what we’re doing to fix it.

Eric White Yeah, and I’m sure that those employees union reps were frothing at the mouth as soon as they heard that employees were not being reimbursed for business expenses.

Jack Fitzpatrick Yes, there actually was a grievance filed by the union that represents National Weather Service employees that mentioned 25 employees of the National Weather Service who were waiting for months for travel reimbursements, in many cases totaling thousands of dollars. The person I talked to was owed $5,400 for more than five months, and according to the union, it affected 25 people. And that’s aside from issues with paying contractors, paying the electric bill, that kind of thing.

Eric White We’re speaking with Jack Fitzpatrick from Bloomberg Government. And so I imagine with employees being directly affected by this problem, this wasn’t a whistleblower case, so to speak, just because it would be so out in the open and so many people were affected. But it is kind of been kept under wraps. I mean, how did you yourself come across this story?

Jack Fitzpatrick The first way I came across it was because of the National Weather Service Employees Union. There have been for years some issues with the National Weather Service being understaffed in areas. Congress has discussed that I wanted to learn more about a variety of those issues. I coincidentally called the new president of the employees union for the National Weather Service not long after they filed the grievance. She mentioned that to me, and it was clear that this was a broader issue. It’s the travel reimbursements not going out to employees, but also it blocked a lot of payments. So between that and then reaching out to a lot of local people who were affected because the NOAA Weather Radio went down in Alabama for a little while, that kind of thing. I have pieced together this story, but I do think there is probably a greater extent and a greater breadth than I have even learned. So I’m still working on learning exactly where and how these problems have happened, because it does seem to be quite widespread.

Eric White I know that you said the agency hasn’t outlined exactly what went wrong, but let’s go back to implementing this new system overall. Was there a need to shore up? I imagine that purchasing can always get more efficient, especially when you’re talking about big agencies. Is that what the case was? It was meant to streamline things and obviously make things easier and it just hasn’t gone to plan.

Jack Fitzpatrick Yeah, it was meant to streamline things. This is replacing a system that had been in place at Commerce for a number of years, I think more than 20 years. And employees have said, look, there should be advantages and it’s likely that there still will be. But the issue was they didn’t understand how difficult it would be. Evidently, there was a data mismatch that caused more problems than expected, and there were cases where the communication wasn’t where it needed to be. I spoke to the chief meteorologist at the Huntsville, Alabama National Weather Service office who, after their problems getting the money out the door despite his efforts to pay the electric bill, said the lesson learned from his end is you have to communicate to vendors, to contractors, to everybody. We’re going to have to work through some issues. Let’s communicate ahead of time. And that is one of the shortcomings here was a lot of people were left in the dark, and then power was cut off in some cases without a heads up.

Eric White Yeah. When you’re talking about major pieces of infrastructure and safety going down like that, I’m going to guess that members of Congress were probably piling on about the agency’s problems as well.

Jack Fitzpatrick It did get to Congress. I know that in one instance in Alabama, the radio transmitter that went down is right where Robert Aderholt is based. He’s from the Cullman, Alabama area. Aderholt is a senior Appropriator a pretty influential member of the House. I heard from the locals there that they struggled to get traction until they reached out to Congressman Aderholt. And when he followed up, the bill was paid pretty quickly. There hasn’t been a lot of finger pointing at Commerce. There haven’t been a lot of demands for public answers about this, but at least in that case, they know that it got to a very senior member of the Appropriations Committee who followed up, and that’s how that instance was taken care of.

Eric White Finally, as the agency, given any sort of timeline or any sort of expectation for when these employees will finally be reimbursed for traveling to these disaster zones.

Jack Fitzpatrick Well, some have been. In fact, the meteorologist who’s based in L.A, who I talked to, Richard Thompson, first talked to me about his issues, and then shortly before we published the story, he got paid. So we were at least able to confirm that after a little more than five months. He did eventually get that $5,400. The agency, though, has not answered questions publicly on where exactly they are in the process of working through that backlog. It does seem that they’re paying bills now. It’s not that they’re building up a greater backlog, but it’s a messy experience trying to make those payments. And they have not said how much money they owe at this point, where they are in the process of how many bills still need to be paid. I haven’t gotten answers on that, but they seem to still be working on it.

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