Improving NRC’s Internal Processes

Dave Solorio
Branch Chief
Concerns Resolution Branch

differingopinionThe most effective organizations are constantly evaluating how well their processes work and looking for ways to improve them. The NRC uses many different tools to measure its organizational effectiveness. When we identify improvements that can be made, we try to find the best way to put those changes in place — and then we measure their effectiveness.

In 2006, recognizing the need for standardization to replace procedures that varied by office, the NRC created an agency-wide “non-concurrence” process. The process encourages employees to bring different views to management related to policy papers, technical and administrative determinations, and other agency actions. And to do it as the supporting draft documents make their way through the management approval chain. The process is meant to promote the airing of views before final management decisions are made—in an effort to empower everyone involved and reach better decisions.

The NRC is fortunate to have so many talented, dedicated professionals–who may not always agree–and we appreciate their willingness to speak up. We encourage critical thinking and a questioning attitude not just among our licensees, but throughout our agency. As a safety regulator, the NRC recognizes the importance of an open, collaborative work environment, where people can raise concerns and differing views without fear of reprisal. Having an environment where people feel comfortable making varied views known supports our safety mission and makes for better decision-making.

My office recently evaluated the effectiveness of our non-concurrence process and used the results to revise the procedure for professional disagreements on draft documents. We feel confident these revisions will improve the process and allow the NRC to make the best possible decisions.

Our assessment provided encouraging feedback, but also identified areas where we have more work to do. On the positive side, we are encouraged NRC employees see the process as a way to be heard, understood and responded to. It’s also gratifying to see that most employees are aware of the process and would be willing to use it. On the other hand, some users of the process felt they faced negative consequences, or that their views were not reflected in final decisions. In many respects, the negative feedback was the most useful because it helps us target the areas where further improvement is needed.

For one thing, we are looking at ways to provide better training and clarify through that training and the revised procedure what is expected of supervisors who receive differing views, such as providing positive feedback for raising concerns. We are also working to make information on non-concurrence experiences (both positive and negative) more widely available.

Author: Moderator

Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

12 thoughts on “Improving NRC’s Internal Processes”

  1. Mr Solorio,

    Thank you for the update in response to comments since your initial post. Today I have revisited an article you may be familiar with about the important of leadership accepting and providing for management of conflict in complex organizations – – crafted for a business setting, I suggest it has its pertinent aspects nonetheless.

    I have no doubt that given the diversity of circumstances NRC Staff must address, and with allowance for the necessarily large fraction of critique inevitable in correspondence with licensees, the effort to strike a balance regarding the role of dissenting feedback from subordinate staff presents a predicament – a condition which must be continually navigated because there can be no engineered or strictly auditable solution.

    In the Policy section of MD 10.158, item B this statement appears:
    “The free and open exchange of views or ideas conducted in a non-threatening environment provides the ideal forum where concerns and alternative views can be considered and addressed in an efficient and timely manner that improves decisionmaking and supports the agency’s safety and security mission.”

    The statement appears to be explanatory in nature; it lacks the earlier policy imperatives “support” and “strives.” And yet I suggest that from my perspective of stakeholder in the NRC’s safety and security mission, the attribute with the highest policy objective status would be this:

    It is the Policy of the NRC to encourage “concerns and alternative views (which) can be considered and addressed in an efficient and timely manner that improves decisionmaking”

    There can be no ideal measure upon an Objective which is subject to many variable influence factors. But if the investment is going to be made in having this process and promoting its use, and particularly in training regarding its use, then people deserve to see the process framed as being of central, not incidental value to the enterprise. The confidence people throughout the enterprise place in the availability of this option being warmly accepted by management is not something an audit type assessment can establish.

    Having taken that position of positive value added – in all circumstances, Staff can provide for the measures of effectiveness on this Return on Objective type investment. Such will not be scalar metric quantities, and they must inform the prime objective better than degree of potential satisfaction assessed by survey. Rather some effort is needed to figure out Figure of Merit type measures (e.g. NCP’s per correspondence type, or department; exemplary case studies ethnographically elaborated can be helpful as well).

    It may be the judgment of leadership that the uncertainties of establishing such measures outweigh their benefit – at which point the MD should be dramatically simplified or eliminated. There can be no middle ground as regards openness to disagreement; nor absence of respect, within those holding disagreeing opinions, that in the end others above them in the Line are responsible to make decisions.

  2. The NRC supports openness and transparency. Once a Differing Professional Opinion is considered closed, a summary of the case is posted in the Weekly Information Report available on the NRC public website. If the submitter would like the closed DPO background records made public, a releaseability review is performed. Before detailed records are released a number of considerations, such as security sensitivity, must be weighed.

    Dave Solorio

  3. Is the NRC correcting the deficiencies which have been noted? Or, are you going to continue with the “song and dance routine” that everything is lovely and the employees are going to be continuously discriminated against and harassed by negative management actions if they do not concur?

    How much input does the NEI have in advising NRC management of NRC employee non-concurring actions?

  4. We are aware of very few governmental organizations that have a process such as the NRC’s non-concurrence program. The NRC began this program to give employees an additional avenue for expressing a different view so we get the benefit of more perspectives. Based on experience to date, we have more work to do and based on the report we are now making changes. Feedback from survey participants shows 77% believe their views were heard by management and roughly 80% would both use the process again and recommend it to others. Other feedback, as referenced in comments below, suggested we could do more to enhance the process for participants. As noted, actions are underway to do just that. We value the input and appreciate the feedback because it helps us target our efforts moving forward. It is our hope that we will successfully address concerns with the changes we are making to the process. We will continue to assess how well these changes work, and make adjustments as necessary. Our goal is to have a process where critical thinking truly is valued.
    Dave Solorio

  5. Many excellent comments! All DPOs should be made part of the public docket. When talented professional NRC staffers take issue with NRC actions or policy the public should be informed. This would really put legs under the NRC Commissioner’s words about wanting “regulatory transparency”.
    Also it would ensure that valid safety concerns are always given proper management attention.

  6. It seems there is reported trouble regarding the non-concurrence process. Trouble that equates to retaliation of NRC staff who did not concur with status quo approvals. You say on one hand you are making improvements, then we read in the press that retaliation is being taken against NRC employees who do not concur with the status quo. What is going on??

    Here is what is stated along with the reference, which is repeated in numerous U.S. publications: 1) “Seventy-five percent of Nuclear Regulatory Commission employees who participated in an internal survey said they received poor performance reviews after registering formal objections to agency decisions…many of those surveyed about their own experience submitting formal objections through the program believed there had been negative consequences to doing so.” 2) “…three quarters of survey participants who reported poor performance reviews after raising objections, 63 percent felt they were excluded from work activities and 25 percent thought they were passed over for promotions…” 3) “25 percent said they were verbally abused by their supervisors or colleagues after submitting a formal objection, and only 32 percent said their views were fully considered before a decision was made.”

    What does this mean? It would seem the NRC is not practicing effective management, communications and management practices which facilitate organizational effectiveness as our civilian nuclear industry regulator. .

    What say you NRC?

  7. I’ve submitted both a non-concurrence and a DPO. In both cases, I felt that the agency did not address the technical issues raised, but rather created a bureaucratic smoke screen to avoid having to admit that a mistake had been disposition the issue. When asked about the non-concurrence and a DPO processes, I responded that I felt these processes provided an illusion that the agency valued critical thinking. But the underlying purpose appeared to be to provide an alternative to discussing controversial issues outside of the agency. While ties to my alternative position were subtle, I also felt considerable pressure to go along and support the agency position.

  8. Perhaps what bothers me reading this report is the sense I get of over-confidence in the power of form to pass for substance.

    It is one form of regulatory capture when a single external entity like a very rich firm, government ministry, or powerful “anti” group can put their finger on the regulatory balance beam so as to unduly influence decisions in their own favor.

    But there can be a second form of capture, the one where the regulatory staff becomes persuaded they are the final authority on every aspect of their own performance. One example mechanism is the Normalization of Deviance as described by Vaughan about NASA in the Challenger Launch Decision. Might that be in evidence here?

    Challenger was lost because NASA’s Non-Concurrence Process – for agreement on launch readiness – drifted into failure; one burnt o-ring rationalized away at a time over a period of several years.

    If half the people who used this NRC non-concurrence process report a chilling experience, and 75% of those who managed response to a formal NC Report don’t respond to the survey then its time to question your assessment design. I’m not seeing evidence of that pivot.

    At the end of the day there are still judgment and experience-based decisions which must be made by responsible managers even when a consensus of staff views is lacking – some rate of non-concurrence is to be expected. I know of no formula for judging what is a “healthful” rate; I doubt that surveys over a large population of non-users tells you much.

    In any elaborate assessment like this one I’ve learned to give at least half of the risk insight weight to the first finding. In this case that finding is that leadership commitment is wanting of improvement. After reading the full report I ask myself: did the assessors dive deeply into this issue? My conclusion would have to be: No they did not.

    One of the problems with organization culture management by surveys is when the surveys are used to assess heterogeneous mixtures. It appears that is what is happening here. Stop light coding is another occasion for misrepresenting or unwittingly “burying the lead.”

    As a person in regulatory agency leadership I would be unhappy with this report on several different levels. I hope some such unhappiness exists within NRC.

  9. From page 7: (Note) “1 Out of 39 surveys issued to submitters, 24 responded (62 percent response rate); out of 62 surveys issued to participants, 17 responded (27 percent response rate).”

    And in Section C on that same page: “In addition, the majority of submitters believed that the rationale for the outcome was not clearly documented and that they experienced negative consequences as a result of submitting a non-concurrence.”

    Now these two pieces of information would leave me as an assessor reaching for my shovel to dig deeper. I could point to other worrisome disparities like this; along with there being no actual response from those whose “leadership commitment” needs to be more in evidence, a member of the public might conclude this assessment will prove of dubious value.

  10. To: Dave Solorio Branch Chief, Concerns Resolution Branch

    Let me say that as someone that has submitted a huge number of technical documents that specifically outlined how Region IV allowed SCE to create a Like-For-Like RSG debacle (at San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant) that has created a multi-billion dollar early decommissioning “problem” that the Utility is now asking the ratepayers to pay for, I feel from the feedback received, the NRC could have cared less!

    My suggestion to you is to give everyone that could possibly approve a Like-For-Like replacement a pop quiz essay question asking them to explain what is Fluid Elastic Instability is and what causes it. I know you will be amazed at the responses you receive.

    I think this could save the American public (and the NRC) from at least one Fukushima type incident, since San Onofre clearly put 5+ million people in Southern California at risk and nobody in Region IV or the Utility even got spanked….

  11. =) wow, that pdf is very impressive. i appreciate the step by step guide for how people should just be empowered to say waht they need to say in an environment empowered to listen without prejudice to stay on teh mission of the NRC. =) i wouldn’t want to have anyone’s job in particular there, but I really hope that if there is someone in their position that is failing to do the job necessary to really do what it takes to achieve #RealNuclearWasteConfidence, someone would let everyone else know what we need to change because Fukushima is still not contained, so if it happens here, we will have the same tragedy, let alone the impact on our coastal eco (ecology and economic) systems and the NRC hasn’t made that a priority for our Congress to focus on yet. Thank you for all your efforts.

  12. Reblogged this on Niki.V.all.ways.My.way. and commented:
    oh, really?!!! how are they going to improve that whole process where they have to stand up and tell the stupid politicians what they REALLY need to do to this industry in order to protect all of humanity?!!! #TogetherWeRise Come On NRC, I’ll try to help you find your voice!

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