NASA’s SSO: Enabling Missions to Mars

What’s true for NASA holds true for all of you: your day-to-day work may not be in the forefront of your organization's business, but what you do allows your organization to succeed. Nowhere is this more apparent than in NASA’s space initiatives. As the Federal Government is looking for cost savings across the public sector, NASA’s Shared Services team is helping to put the rover Curiosity on Mars.


Established six years ago, NASA Shared Services Center [NSSC] initially focused on consolidating business services, which had until then not received a lot of attention. "NASA is known for its technical expertise," explains Kenneth Newton, who heads the NSSC Service Delivery organization. "But we'd been neglecting our institutional services. That has now changed." Today, as the Government has charged NASA to cut budgets by 5-10%, Newton's group is focused on driving value and doing more with less.

Barbara Hodge asks Kenneth about NSSC's current mission.

Ken, can you tell us a little bit about your background? How does NASA’s Shared Services operate today? What kind of things do you have on your agenda?

I am the Director of Service Delivery at NASA’s Shared Services Center (NSSC), and am responsible for all of the services in financial management, human resources, procurement, and information technology (IT). I’ve been with this project since, pre-inception, I guess, as I worked on the business case and implementation plan for setting up this new office from in 2002 to 2005. The NSSC went "live" in March 2006 and is located at Stennis Space Center, on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, just across the Louisiana State line.

If I remember correctly, the launch of your shared services coincided with the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Katrina.

Yes. We were actually scheduled to "go live" in October 2005. We reported down here the week before Hurricane Katrina hit, and then we delayed "go live" for six months because of the effects of Katrina in the area.

What’s interesting in your situation is that P&L is not necessarily the driver as it may be for others – so what’s the challenge and what’s the trick to getting buy-in from stakeholders?

Well, I think the key burning platform, if we were to use that term, that created the shared services was a "zero-based review" - conducted by NASA in 2000. Many of what we call our "institutional areas," such as financial management, human resources, procurement, and IT, had suffered numerous reductions during the 1990’s - due to budget reductions and had inadequate staffing to provide the service levels required. We felt that something had to be done to bring some relief to those areas. Initially, the conversation was about consolidating into a consolidated business services organization, but during our team events, we stumbled across the shared services delivery model, and felt that this was the best solution to solve the issues that had been identified in the functional areas.

What kind of issues are we talking about, Ken? Service levels?

Well, we were performing these activities at ten different sites (NASA centers) and the staffing levels were just not adequate to perform at the expected service levels. Personnel were headed towards a collision course.

What were the priorities you set yourself at launch? And what are your priorities today?

The main focus at the start was to provide a seamless, transparent transition in these activities - then stabilize them. We had a three-year transition plan, so we didn’t opt for the big bang approach. Instead, a great deal of planning went into the order of activities. The challenge was that we were launching the new shared services center with a brand new workforce with many individuals who had not worked for the Government before. So there was a great deal of training involved and a great deal of change management to get launched. The focus was transitioning and stabilizing and getting the quality of service up to the level that we felt was important to NASA. Building customer confidence in our ability to perform and deliver the level of service was critical. One of our guiding mantras back in 2002 was to elevate our institutional activities to the level of excellence that we were used to on our technical side. NASA is a highly-technical, engineering, and scientific-research organization – but we had been neglecting our institutional services. We felt that we needed to bring our institutional level of excellence up to that of our technical side. So that’s what we set out to do.

These institutional services – are they what we would otherwise call functional services, right?

Yes: financial management, human resources, procurement, IT, facilities management, and resources management…the key word we use in orientation is that we are "enablers" to the mission. We don’t fly shuttles and we don’t develop spacecraft – but we do enable all the things that NASA does.

So what are your priorities today, Ken, given that you’ve got a fairly mature shared services operation and you’ve achieved certain milestones along the way?

Our priority today is to deliver greater value for the Agency, and bring an understanding of that value to our executive leaders. The Obama Administration has put a lot of attention on potential reduced budgets in order to make an impact on the national debt. So we at NASA have been charged to find 5-10% cuts in our budget. So you can either be a victim of that, or you can go and identify continuous service improvement areas that allow you to achieve those budget reductions.

The challenge we get constantly is: "What have you done for us recently?" – and even though we’ve realized $15 to $20 million in savings annually through shared services, we know we need to leverage what we can further. So that is our greatest challenge today: to look for efficiencies in our current portfolio and identify additional activities that could move into shared services with the ultimate goal of reducing costs to our field centers and Agency as a whole.

Given your public status, is it more difficult to push through cost reductions than it might be in a private organization driven by P&L?

Actually, cost reduction is very easy. Proposing a cost reduction is embraced whether its private sector or public sector –you always want to reduce your costs. The challenge we face is taking up additional services. The center operations sometimes view this with mistrust, and misconstrue it as "empire building." Basically, we’re taking resources from them to stand up our "empire" – that’s what we have to really guard against. People still don’t understand the model, and therefore don’t whole-heartedly support us.

What is your solution to that, Ken? What kind of educational initiatives have you implemented to counter this?

Just a couple weeks ago, my team was strategizing for our balance scorecard. One of the things that we are dealing with, and I don’t know if it’s as prevalent in the private sector as it is here, is there is a lot of turnover in senior leadership. At the same time, we are trying to develop a stakeholder analysis or a stakeholder plan, to outline which stakeholders we need to reach and through which medium. That’s what we’re taking into the next fiscal year: a plan to reach executive leaders in the Agency, as-well-as senior leaders in our field centers. We need to show them where we can bring more value to the Agency and free-up resources for them to invest in the mission – in our primary mission.

What’s the main message you’ll be sharing with delegates at SSON’s Public Sector conference in Chicago?

We have a great team that is focused on continual service improvement, and we’ve been blessed with a leadership team that is focused on what we can achieve. Our staff has also embraced a customer service model where we recognize our customer base – the scientists and the engineers that make NASA’s achievements, like the successful landing of the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity Rover that we are currently celebrating, possible. The things we do enable those achievements. So what we have to do now is really "reach" our senior leaders. I’m speaking on Effective Change Leadership and Executive Sponsorship, a theme obviously very close to my heart. The challenge is that our work is not visible at the forefront of what NASA does, so shared services is not talked about, it’s not celebrated as much as landing a rover on Mars is celebrated! What we need to learn to do better is prove that, by doing our job well, we are providing NASA with more money to invest in its mission.

I’ve been with NASA for 23 years, and until now the functional or institutional areas, have always taken a back seat to the mission. But now, we’re pushing – not necessarily to be in the front seat, but to be leveraged to better impact those in the front seat…those driving the NASA mission forward. We need to really persuade and educate people so that they understand that the shared services model will allow us to accomplish more of those spectacular things we do on the mission side. That’s what I want to get across to the audience. And, as this is a public sector conference, many delegates will be facing the same challenges with the heads of their agencies.

Yes, and that message holds true no matter what your industry is. At Procter & Gamble, the GBS is helping put shampoo in the hands of its customers faster; and you’re helping to put Curiosity on Mars. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me this morning.

My pleasure, Barbara.

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If you are part of the public sector, and want to drive improvements through your organization, be sure to stay ahead on shared services strategies: find out who is leading at Shared Services & Process Improvement for Higher Education, Healthcare and Government, in the US; or the Public Sector Transformation Forum in Australia – both running in November. Also, don't miss the UK's Procurement Transformation Summit – this is where a lot of attention will be focussed in the future.