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NASA financial systems under scrutiny

Unless it upgrades, the agency won't have the day-to-day info it needs to run programs efficiently, GAO says.

President Bush's recent push for broader space exploration may be stalled unless NASA improves its financial computing systems, government auditors said Thursday.

The aerospace agency purchased and implemented systems that "lack basic functionality" when it began its third attempt at modernizing its financial processes in 2000, the Government Accountability Office said in its report (click for PDF).

The systems can't perform crucial tasks needed to improve management of contracts, provide credible cost estimates for programs, and create auditable statements, according to the report.

"The lack of reliable, day-to-day information continues to threaten NASA's ability to manage its programs, oversee its contractors, and effectively allocate its budget across its numerous projects and programs," government auditors wrote.

That also means that NASA isn't complying "substantially" with the Federal Financial Management Improvement Act of 1996, which requires "timely, accurate and useful" reporting of the costs associated with federal agency work, the report said.

NASA is not alone in its lack of progress, the report noted. Only seven government agencies, including the National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Social Security Administration, are in substantial compliance.

Still, the agency should "not be content with an automated system that helps the agency get a 'clean' audit opinion once a year without providing additional value to the program managers and cost estimators who use its financial data," the auditors wrote.

For example, NASA officials took four months to come up with information requested by government auditors--and even then, managed to omit or double count numbers because of the system's core glitches. The system also does not properly classify its employees' travel expenses, leading to significant underreporting in its annual reports to Congress, government auditors said.

In addition to better technology, the agency needs to establish "clear, strong executive leadership" over the systems, the report suggested.

The report was released less than a month after NASA Administrator Michael Griffin --estimated to have cost at least $250 billion--huge mistakes.