Many gove^rnment programs experience significant changes in direction or emphasis with every change of administration, especially when a different political party occupies the White House. But changes also occur even when the same party succeeds to executive power but under a new president.
Of all the gove^rnment-sponsored R&D programs, those dealing with energy seemed to be the most affected by the changes of administration. Without discussing here the major differences in energy philosophy between Republican and Democratic administrations, and the shifts in philosophy that occurred even within a given administration, suffice it to say that each change of administration provoked a rethinking of energy policy and R&D goals. As mentioned in earlier chapters, these changes were especially onerous in the field of renewable energy. Support for R&D programs in renewable energy vacillated between almost zero to “the sky’s the limit.” R&D programs for other energy sources (fossil fuels and nuclear), although experiencing some swings in support, were always able to maintain more level funding. In addition, energy programs were also afflicted by the introduction of completely new organizational entities in 1975 (ERDA) and in 1977 (DOE), and by the expressed desire to abolish one of those entities (DOE) in 1980. What were the impacts of such instability on solar programs? They were manifold.
From 1975 to 1989, the top gove^rnment manager for solar programs changed twelve times, on average every fifteen months (Teem, Hirsch, Beattie, Walden, Savitz, Stelson, DeGeorge, Tribble, Collins, Fitzpatrick, Berg, and Davis). The first “rule” in Washington programs is that with each change in program leadership comes an organizational change, and this was true, to some degree, for each of the top solar energy manager changes. The result: shifting program responsibilities, personnel transfers from program to program, in some cases, personnel departures and loss of “corporate memory,” and often, demoralization of the key government resource, skilled managers. In some instances, reorganization was needed and productive based on the changes in program emphasis. In other cases, the organizational changes brought only disarray because the changes were so ill conceived and short-lived that the staff involved never had a chance to understand and rationalize their new jobs. It is doubtful any private sector company could have survived such turmoil. And although there are obvious differences between the private sector and government programs, there is a common thread: good management requires management stability.
Beginning in 1975 with the establishment of ERDA, the top solar/ renewable energy manager became a political appointee, with a few interim “Acting Managers,” or recess appointees, who did not have the imprimatur of a Senate confirmation. These managers brought different backgrounds to the job, ranging from strong science and engineering experience and skills in managing large R&D programs, to none of the above. And of course, the political appointees were obligated to support the political agenda of “their” administration. The authors recognize that a political agenda is an inherent part of any government program, but also believe that R&D programs, by their very nature, cannot succeed in a climate of constant change precipitated by political tugs of war. Great amounts of money are wasted or poorly spent when the R&D cycle, once started, is not permitted to achieve a logical end point, within a reasonable time frame. Such waste occurred in most of the solar energy programs.
Are there ways to minimize waste of R&D program resources? Part of the solution would be multiyear funding. If one can assume that a national priority and goal can be approved for a given energy R&D program through some “neutral consensus mechanism,” then multiyear funding in support of multiyear program commitments would permit rational programs to be designed and completed. Such funding would not dispense with careful program review and oversight but would put increased emphasis on program management by the gove^rnment agency responsible for assuring that objectives and schedules were being met.
A second part of the solution is to bring stability and competence to high-level R&D management. The best way to achieve this would be to reduce the number of political appointees in agencies charged with the responsibility of conducting R&D and instead fill the top positions with career managers of proven experience. Depoliticizing top management positions would greatly reduce the size of the army of lower-grade political appointees who find a home with each new administration, thus removing another source of program instability. Congressional oversight should be exercised at an appropriate level. Congress must recognize that its efforts to micromanage R&D programs will lead to program distortions, disruptions, and in some cases, program failure, and that it must resist the urge to intervene unless mismanagement can be shown. Congressional staff have a long history of such “micromanagement,” rarely with positive results. Congress and new administrations • should also recognize that programs, once started, especially large programs, are difficult to modify or terminate. This fact, again, argues for consensus and careful planning.
Several commissions have looked into the problems cited above, but their recommendations have largely been ignored. It is past time to face these problems and solve them.