Thursday, June 12, 2014

NRC Non-Concurrence Process Assessment: Tempest in a Teapot?

On June 4, 2014 the NRC announced a revised agency-wide non-concurrence process (NCP) on their blog.*  A key objective of the NCP is “to ensure that a non-concurrence is heard, understood, and considered by employees included in the concurrence process so that the non-concurrence informs and supports the decisionmaking process.”**

The NRC performed an assessment*** of the prior NCP using multiple data sources, including the NRC’s 2012 Safety Culture and Climate Survey (SCCS) and an April 2013 survey targeted at employees who had been involved with the NCP as submitters or participants (employees who have responded to non-concurrences).

The assessment identified both strengths and weaknesses with the then-existing NCP.  In general, participants were aware of the NCP and were willing to use it.  However, “some users of the process felt they faced negative consequences, or that their views were not reflected in final decisions.” (blog post)  The assessment also included a bevy of planned actions to address NCP weaknesses.

For us, the interesting question is what does the assessment say or what can be inferred, if anything, with respect to the NRC’s safety culture (SC).  This post focuses on SC-related topics mentioned in the assessment that help us answer that question.

Leadership Commitment

Leadership commitment is an area of concern and planned actions. (p. 4)  “Data from several sources indicates that many of the responding employees are still uncertain about management’s support of the NCP. . . . management was just going through the motions. . . .[some employees] thought the process was biased . . .supervisors using the process indicated that they were concerned management would view it as a negative reflection on them [the supervisors].” (p. 11)  In the targeted survey, “more than half of submitters are concerned about management’s support of the NCP.” (p. 7)

Planned actions include “support managers in emphasizing their personal commitment to the welcoming of sharing differing views and the value of using the NCP in support of sound regulatory decisionmaking. . . . Management should demonstrate this [NCP is a positive] clearly and frequently through their actions and communications. . . . Staff will continue to support a variety of outreach activities and communication tools, such as EDO Updates, monthly senior management meetings, all-supervisor meetings, senior leadership meetings, Yellow Announcements, all-hands meetings, brown bag lunches, seminars, and articles in the NRC Reporter and office-level newsletters.” (p. 18)  Whew!

Potential Negative Consequences of Submitting a NCP

From the SCCS report the assessment highlights that “Forty-nine percent of employees believe that the NCP is effective (37 percent don’t have an opinion on the effectiveness of the NCP and 14 percent believe that the NCP is not effective).” (p. 6)  That 14 percent looks low but because there are only about a dozen NCP filings per year, it might actually reflect that a lot of people who use the process end up disappointed.  That view is supported by the targeted survey where “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.” (p. 7)

We reviewed the SCCS on April 6, 2013.  We noted that “The consultants' cover letter identified this [DPO/NCP] as an area for NRC management attention, saying the agency was “Losing significant ground on negative reactions when raising views different from senior management, supervisor, and peers.””

Planned actions include “proactively fostering an environment that encourages and supports differing views . . . evaluating the merits of infusing NCP key messages into existing training, including reinforcing that supervisors and managers will be held accountable for their actions. . . . consider training for all supervisors to address concerns of retaliation and chilling effect for engaging in the NCP. . . . hosting panel discussions including previous NCP submitters and participants . . . promote NCP success stories . . . evaluating the merits of establishing an anti-retaliation policy and procedures to address concerns of retaliation and chilling effect for engaging in the NCP. (p. 20)  Note these are all staff activities, management doesn’t have to do anything except go along with the program.

Goal Conflict

Goal conflict is another problem area.  The assessment notes “many responding employees commented they felt pressure to meet schedules at the expense of quality.” (p. 17)  That issue was also highlighted in the 2012 SCCS and could well be the source for the comment in the assessment.

Our Perspective

An effective NCP is important.  We believe NCP or some functionally equivalent practice should be more widely utilized in the world of formal organizations.

But it is easy to read too much into the NCP assessment.  The primary data input was the 2012 SCCS and that is relatively old news.  Another key input was the targeted survey.  However, the number of survey respondents was small because only a handful of people use the NCP.****  Based on the negative responses of the submitters, it appears that NRC needs to do a better job of administering the NCP, especially in the areas of (1) convincing submitters that their concerns were actually considered (even if ultimately rejected) and (2) ensuring there are no negative consequences associated with using the NCP.  These are real process implementation challenges but the NCP-related issues do not reflect some major, new problem in the agency’s SC.

On the other hand, perceptions of negative responses to rocking the boat in general or senior management’s lack of commitment to inclusive programs and “safety first” are SC signals to which attention must be paid.  If Staff trains their 10 gauge shotgun of interventions on these possibly systemic issues then some actual good could come out of this.

*  NRC blog “Improving NRC’s Internal Processes” (June 4, 2014).  Retrieved June 12, 2014.

**  NRC Non-Concurrence Process, Management Directive 10.158 (Mar. 14, 2014).  ADAMS ML13176A371.

“Non-concurrence” means an employee has a problem with a document the employee had a role in creating or reviewing.  For example, the employee might hold a different view on a technical matter or disagree with a proposed decision.

The NCP appears to be more formal and documented than the NRC Open Door policy and less restrictive than the Differing Professional Opinions (DPO) program which is reserved for concerns on established NRC positions.

***  NRC Office of Enforcement, “2014 Non-Concurrence Process Assessment”  (June 4, 2014).  ADAMS ML14056A294.

****  The survey was issued to 39 submitters (24 responded [62%]) and 62 participants (17 responded [27%]).

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