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Report: Too Much Turnover Hurting AOC

Coinciding with acting Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers’ appearances before appropriators today and Friday to discuss his fiscal 2008 budget request, the Government Accountability Office is releasing a report stating that the ongoing turnover in senior leadership at the AOC could be adversely affecting the agency’s implementation of better management procedures.

The report, being released today, notes that nine leadership positions at the AOC were filled in the past 12 months — mostly due to retirements and resignations — and that the process of finding a permanent replacement for former Architect Alan Hantman is “in the early stages” and could take more than a year.

While the nine recently hired managers “can bring new energy and ideas to the agency, the introduction of so many new managers within a short period makes it challenging to integrate them into the AOC while sustaining the progress made thus far” toward better management practices, the report states. “The turnover in AOC’s senior leadership over the past year resulted in a loss of leadership continuity, institutional knowledge, and expertise — a loss that could adversely affect AOC’s ability to continue its progress, at least in the short term.”

The GAO’s report is the fourth in a series of status updates on the AOC’s progress toward implementing recommendations designed to help the agency establish a strong management and accountability framework. The GAO came up with some 64 recommendations for the AOC to implement after Congress raised concerns about management shortcomings in the Architect’s office in 2001.

Last year, the AOC implemented 21 of the recommendations, which fall into nine areas including financial management, worker safety and recycling. Since 2003, the AOC has implemented a total of 43 of the GAO’s recommendations.

While the 2006 report concluded that the AOC had not done enough to address the development of internal controls and communications with external stakeholders, this year’s report is titled, “Committed, Sustained Leadership Needed to Continue Progress.”

Noting that Ayers not only is serving as the acting Architect but also maintaining his duties as the AOC’s chief operating officer, the report notes that “it will be challenging for one person to fulfill the critical roles” that both jobs require and continue the agency’s “progress toward becoming more strategic and accountable.”

In general, the COO is responsible for developing the AOC’s strategic and performance plans, proposing agency organizational and staffing changes and directing general operational functions. The Architect’s responsibilities include overall management of the agency, representation on several boards and commissions including the Capitol Police Board, and management of the Capitol Visitor Center project. That project is set to reach a critical milestone this year as it shifts from construction to operational planning. Meanwhile, the CVC will lose a key player, Project Executive Bob Hixon, who retires at the end of the month.

According to the report, Ayers “identified the CVC as one of the agency’s major challenges to becoming more strategic and accountable, because the CVC requires significant management attention that could otherwise be focused on AOC’s transformation initiatives.”

Besides leadership issues, the GAO report notes a number of other challenges facing the AOC.

“Although AOC has revised its strategic plan to better focus on its mission and goals, it has not determined whether it can better deliver the services that support its mission and goals through outsourcing or in-house resources,” the report states. Communication problems also exist between the AOC and its external stakeholders as well as between management and staff.

The report cites the way AOC handled the health and safety concerns raised by workers who repair the Capitol complex’s utility tunnel system as an example of communication efforts that could have been better handled.

“Although AOC developed a plan to address problems in the utility tunnels, the tunnel workers expressed concern that they had no clear idea of when the problems would be solved,” the report states. “To improve communication, AOC began holding weekly meetings with tunnel shop workers … but workers continued to express frustration about the lack of progress in addressing their safety and health concerns.”

The dispute between the tunnel shop workers and AOC management eventually resulted in a retaliation complaint being filed by the staffers with the Office of Compliance last fall.

Today, John Thayer, the supervisor of the tunnel shop team, will testify at a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions subcommittee hearing to support a bill that Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) will introduce to prohibit the use of asbestos in the United States. Thayer also is expected to ask Congress to compensate the tunnel crew for the occupational injuries that he and his staff have suffered while working in the tunnels.

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