Another Stab at Reinventing the Pentagon

By Sandra I. Erwin

There is no denying that, on the subject of Defense Department efficiency or lack thereof, Congress is at its wits’ end.

Over dozens of House and Senate hearings, lawmakers and witnesses have catalogued a long list of grievances, including excessive overhead spending, wasteful procurement programs, glacial slowness in technological innovation and ineffective methods of recruiting fresh talent.

So in a bold legislative move aimed at lighting a fire under the Pentagon’s top leadership, Congress ordered a major shakeup of the department’s upper ranks.

The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015 creates a new senior position — undersecretary of defense for business management and information — that would be next in line after the secretary and deputy secretary. This post would absorb two current offices, the deputy chief management officer and the chief information officer. Perhaps the more consequential impact would be a disruption to the pecking order, bumping the undersecretary for acquisition and logistics down one notch.

To ease the disruption, Congress set a Feb. 1, 2017 deadline, to coincide with the start of a new administration.

As expected, there are ongoing talks at the Pentagon about asking Congress to rethink this.

Whereas the law was intended to make the Pentagon run more efficiently, in accordance with corporate America business practices, the mandate has revived a perennial debate on why the government can’t operate like the private sector.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter turned to a group of advisers, known as the Defense Business Board, for answers on how to tackle the NDAA mandate to reshuffle the department’s org chart.

A group of DBB members led by management consultant Mark H. Ronald, a former CEO of BAE Systems, has been studying the issue, interviewed more than a dozen former Pentagon officials and is expected to submit a plan to Carter in the coming months.

During a recent meeting of the DBB, Ronald suggested that Congress might have underestimated how difficult it is to change the status quo at the Defense Department. 

“The secretary and the deputy secretary have asked us: ‘How should we implement this? Should we go back to the Congress and suggest modifications?’” Ronald said. Lawmakers are clearly frustrated and want the department to be more agile, but it is at best idealistic to think the Pentagon can behave like a Fortune 500 corporation.

“There are complex companies out there, but nothing comes close to the scale or complexity or, for that matter, the mission of the Department of Defense,” Ronald said. “There is no question in our minds that there are opportunities for improvement. But as we all know, this is very much a complex issue.”

The installation of new leaders next year with the change of administration alone is a monumental disruption. And inserting a major reorganization of a vast bureaucracy into the mix would exacerbate the chaos.

Turnover in the top ranks is a fact of life that sets the Pentagon apart, compared to private corporations. “Every time there’s a new administration there’s massive change in leadership,” Ronald said. “That level of change generally doesn’t happen in the private sector, at least not to that degree.”

So it remains to be seen how the DBB comes down on this. One of its members, retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Arnold Punaro, already is on record opposing the creation of a new undersecretary for business management. “I testified and have been working against it,” Punaro told National Defense. “It would create new bureaucracy that we don’t need.” Instead, Punaro would favor beefing up the CIO office and other, less sweeping, reforms to improve the acquisitions of advanced technology.

A less controversial task given to the DBB was to find ways to spur innovation at the Pentagon and become a workplace that encourages disruptive thinking.

One proposal that takes a page from the private sector is to create “virtual consultancies,” or online collaboration within the vast network of civilian and military organizations. The issue is, “How do you leverage the workforce to solve problems?” said Atul Vashistha, DBB member and an internationally recognized expert on globalization, emerging markets and outsourcing. “How do we capitalize on the people we have? How do we link ideas?”

This is part of a growing trend in corporations to adopt “lean startup” cultures that are less hierarchical and more collaborative. It also would give the Pentagon much needed millennial outreach. “With a huge uniformed workforce under the age of 25 committed, engaged and excited to contribute, its raw material is uniquely well suited to mirroring that model,” Vashistha said.

Creating these virtual consultancies, however, could be an uphill battle in an organization as inflexible and set in its ways as the Pentagon. “The department faces real challenges in doing so … primarily in the form of its massive, rigid bureaucracy,” the DBB task force noted. Corporate executives wonder whether the Defense Department will provide the “leadership commitment, sustained effort and resources” that are needed to build an innovative culture. The group suggested defense leaders should designate “innovation from within a core behavior” of the department. These cultural changes are important to ensure the Pentagon can recruit the next generation of technologists and leaders, the panel said. “The task group is confident that the Defense Department workforce is poised to contribute from the ‘bottom up’ if it’s supported from the ‘top down.’”

The DBB is just getting started on its ambitious agenda to reinvent the Pentagon. On tap for the coming year: Examine the structure and overhead of the defense test and evaluation office, study reasons why the Pentagon has difficulties recruiting private sector executives, de-conflict the acquisitions oversight process, and probe the cost and benefits of Pentagon-funded schools.

Good luck and Godspeed.

Topics: Defense Department, Defense Watch, DOD Leadership, DOD Policy

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