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Is the DoD Too Big to Change?


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In the days when I was directly involved in supplying electronics for the military, we had to file mountains of paperwork substantiating the cost in our contracts. We had extremely knowledgeable and experienced personnel constructing the contracts and preparing all the required supporting documents. A key focal point during any contract review was always the amount of “overhead” attributed to the contract’s performance. The government’s rationale was that such overheard could just be used for padding a contract for greater profit or to assign staff not necessary for the contract’s performance. In our case it was usually reversed—we had to charge off “overhead” personnel needed to fulfill a military contract to commercial groups or accounts within our organization.

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was determined to cut $100 billion from the military budget by reducing overhead and eliminating some command structures that were not critical or had their tasks performed in other commands. The concept was valiant, but the administrative institutions he was requiring to change just defended themselves. They did so by moving personnel to other areas to avoid losing staff or eliminating little empires. He also attempted to reform the military acquisition process, something that has been unsuccessfully attempted numerous times ever since the end of WWII. Occasionally there have been minor successes like SecDef William Perry moving the military to use commercial technology. In the big scheme of acquisition reform—and reduction regarding back room costs—these successes have produced minimal if any financial results.

The most recent effort by the DoD at acquisition reform is called Better Buying Power (BBP). Having expressed an opinion on several previous initiatives like this, I’m compelled to comment on this latest. Every leadership change in the DoD feels obliged to show that they acknowledge a need to reform the current acquisition debacle. They want to show that they are concerned about the problem and are taking action. The result is always the same: more staff added, more reporting and more oversight. The assumption is that doing this will change the behavior of everyone in the acquisition process, even though—just like the last dozen efforts—they’re doing the same thing just using different words and different forms. It’s a shame that all the previous attempts and versions of acquisition reform didn’t use these new words and forms, because the people who put this version together somehow expect it to miraculously work this time.

Somewhere it was noted that in the last five years the DoD’s administrative support personnel has expanded by almost 100,000. The actual number is not really relevant. The fact that it has increased rather than decreased is. The Pentagon is unable or unwilling to provide an actual number of the total staff involved in administration. A second key question is, of the total number of administrative staff, what number are uniformed personnel either stationed in the Pentagon or supporting it from outside the Pentagon? First of all let’s consider: Is it the best use of uniformed personnel from a standpoint of cost-effectiveness? Every uniformed service member has to go through basic training. That’s in addition to some form of advanced individual training—no cheap expense. It’s crazy that we’re providing this training to someone whose sole purpose will be sitting at a desk processing paperwork in D.C. as a clerk, lawyer, accountant, etc.  We need to let personnel with required military training perform tasks essential in military situations and let civilians cope with nonessential military situations.

The primes have reorganized and leaned down staff—especially overhead. Companies in our industry have done the same. Our industry has and is continuing to review itself to ensure that everything  it is investing in is essential and targeting efforts that will produce positive results. Some strong and decisive leadership in the Pentagon is absolutely essential in reducing overhead and initiating results-oriented acquisition reform, rather than doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. This is where the function of sequestration needs to focus before any cuts are made in essential programs or to boots in the field. Or is cutting the bureaucracy just a dream that can never be achieved because the DoD is too big for any one or group of leaders to change?