Expert Report

The National Weather Service Modernization and Associated Restructuring: A Retrospective Assessment (2011)

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Report in Brief >>

During the 20th century, the National Weather Service was unable to keep up with the pace of technological advances and as a result was nearly obsolete by the 1980s. Between 1989 and 2000, the nation invested an estimated $4.5 billion to modernize and restructure the National Weather Service. Efforts to modernize the National Weather Service succeeded in achieving major improvements for the weather enterprise. This report assesses the modernization effort and identifies lessons learned from the process.

Key Messages

  • The $4.5 billion investment in the Modernization and Associated Restructuring (MAR) was both needed and generally well-spent. The framework left in place after the MAR allows and encourages the continued evolution of NWS technology, and to some extent the workforce composition and culture.
  • The major components of the MAR were well-planned and completed largely in accordance to that plan, although notable budget overruns and substantial schedule delays occurred in nearly all the project elements.
  • To modernize its operations, the NWS developed five major technology upgrades. Problems encountered with implementing these technologies included lack of preliminary analysis and ensuing design problems, inadequate program management, and poor contractor performance. However, these problems were overcome and the major technology system upgrades were successfully executed.
  • The technology improvements allowed more uniform radar coverage and surface observations across the United States. Improvements were particularly evident in the forecasting and detection of severe weather such as tornadoes and flash floods. The probability of detecting these events improved over the course of, and after, the MAR, and the lead times of the warnings increased. However, false alarm ratios remain high.
  • Restructuring NWS offices and upgrading the staff brought more evenly-distributed, uniform weather services to the nation. Although the NWS workforce was reduced, technical capabilities and career paths were significantly upgraded and therefore there was little or no cost savings from workforce reorganization.
  • The MAR led to the addition of a Science Operations Officer, who serves to rapidly integrate advancements in the science community in to Weather Forecast Office operations, and a Warning Coordination Meteorologist, who serves as a liaison between the NWS and the media and emergency management communities. Creating these positions and restructuring forecast offices has greatly improved the communication and dissemination of weather information.
  • Executing the MAR required the involvement of many partners, and strengthened relationships between the NWS and other members of the weather enterprise. These improved relationships have proven to be one of the more important outcomes of the MAR because they have increased NWS's societal impact and helped leverage its limited budget.
  • The MAR was the focus of many oversight reviews and advisory reports. In many cases, the reviews drew attention to important issues that otherwise may have inhibited the success of the MAR. The external oversight also provided accountability for technical, budget, and schedule issues metrics during the MAR process.