Congress' tinkering with defense CMO likely to make things worse

Congress' tinkering with defense CMO likely to make things worse
© Bonnie Cash

Congress appears to be poised to make yet another attempt to improve management at the Department of Defense by tinkering with the office of the chief management officer (CMO) in the pending National Defense Authorization Act. 

This is unlikely to make things better and will probably make things worse.

The House version of the bill simply gives the secretary of defense 30 days to transfer the authorities somewhere else in the department, as long as it’s not to anyone who has previously served as the chief management officer. The Senate version is more prescriptive. It would transfer most of the officer’s responsibilities to the deputy secretary and mandate a new performance improvement officer reporting to the deputy. Both approaches are wrong.

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The idea of a chief management officer for the Defense Department dates back to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) effort that began in 2002 and was enacted, in somewhat revised form,  in the defense authorization bill for 2008. 

Congress designated the deputy secretary as the department’s chief management officer with a new deputy chief management officer reporting to the deputy secretary. The undersecretaries of the service components were designated as those units’ respective chief management officers. (I was an acting officer for the Navy briefly in 2008.)

But Congress later determined that the structure was underpowered. So, in 2017, Congress re-created the CMO as the third-ranking appointee in the department with the authority to compel compliance throughout the department.

Disappointment appears to have quickly followed. 

The Defense Business Board, which advises defense leadership on best practices, issued a report that found the CMO has not been effective and proposed three alternative solutions: (1) re-designate the CMO as a principal undersecretary focusing solely on business transformation; (2) create two deputy secretaries of defense — one focused externally (policy and strategy) and one focused internally (resources and management); or (3) designate the existing deputy secretary of defense as the chief operating officer of the department, distribute responsibilities to other Defense Department offices and establish a new performance improvement officer.

These alternative prescriptions represent the triumph of hope over experience. The first is a return to the business transformation initiatives that preceded the formation of the chief management officer. The second supposes the deputy secretary is too busy to deal with management when in fact most deputies have prioritized the role of a chief operating officer. The third looks like a return to the previous chief management officer/deputy chief management officer arrangement. 

None is likely to improve on the current set-up.

Why? First, all of these proposals rely on the belief that if we could only get the organizational structure right at the top of the Defense Department, good management would follow. This argument is fatally flawed. The problems of Defense Department management are not the product of the wrong structure in the Pentagon. Changing titles and moving the boxes on the organization chart doesn’t solve problems of process, culture and tradition.

Secondly, these solutions suggest that top officials in the department actually manage the department. Top management in the Defense Department are more policymakers than managers. The actual management of the department is dispersed widely throughout the department. 

Third, assigning a high rank and giving broad authorities to the chief management officer is not a guarantee of success. As former deputy CMO Peter Levine observed, “Nobody in the Pentagon follows orders.” There is no clear chain of command for management matters throughout the department. Authority is diffused in so many different directions that most management decisions must be made on the basis of consultation and consensus, rather than direction. 

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So, let’s admit that there will always be management issues in the Defense Department. As Levine explains, “The DoD budget does not have a line item for waste. Inefficiency is embedded in thousands of work processes and organizational structures throughout the department.” 

Management can certainly be improved but persistent issues are inherent in an organization of this size and complexity.

Congress should refrain from tinkering with the department’s management organization; its track record isn’t very good. And there’s been some good progress lately. The current chief management officer has claimed over $20 billion in budgetary savings and now controls the budgets of the myriad defense agencies. 

So leave it alone, Congress. The current structure is as good and probably better than anything we’re likely to get from more legislation.

Douglas A. Brook, Ph.D., is visiting professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. He has served in the Pentagon as an assistant secretary of the Army, an assistant secretary of the Navy and an acting undersecretary of defense.