Peer Review Process for Civil Works Project Studies Can Be Improved

March 8, 2012

Since enactment of the Water Resources Development Act of 2007, 49 project studies have undergone peer review but it is unclear how many were performed in response to section 2034 requirements because the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) does not make specific determinations or track if a peer review is being conducted under section 2034. In February 2011, in response to section 2034, the Corps submitted its initial report to Congress summarizing its implementation of the peer review process. In its report, however, the Corps did not distinguish which studies had been selected for peer review in accordance with section 2034 and therefore, did not provide Congress information that would help decision makers evaluate the requirements of section 2034 at the end of the trial period.

The 49 peer reviews resulted in both direct and indirect costs. Specifically, these peer reviews resulted in direct costs of over $9 million in contract costs and fees. In addition, Corps staff resources were used to manage the reviews, although these costs are not fully quantifiable. Furthermore, the addition of peer review to the Corps study process has resulted in indirect costs by altering project study schedules to allow for time needed to complete peer reviews. In some cases where a peer review was not planned during the early stages of the study process, significant delays to project studies occurred while funds were sought to pay for the peer review. In contrast, according to some Corps officials, when project managers have built in time and identified funding for peer reviews early, the process has had less of an impact on project study schedules.

The Corps' process for determining whether a project study is subject to peer review is more expansive than section 2034 requirements because it uses broader criteria, resulting in peer reviews of studies outside the scope of section 2034. In addition, the process the Corps uses does not include the flexibility provided in section 2034, which allows for the exclusion of certain project studies from peer review. Moreover, some studies are undergoing peer reviews that do not warrant it, according to some Corps officials GAO spoke with. 

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