In Reforming the DOD, Congress has no Portion Control

By Kelly Ann McCarty

U.S. soldiers on patrol in Iraq in 2006. Photo courtesy U.S. Army/Wikimedia Commons

Defense management reforms are like potato chips to a hungry Congress — they just can’t stop themselves after one, if not the whole bag. Rep. Mac Thornberry, a Texas Republican and the ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, recently published his reform proposals for this year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). My research shows that Congress will mandate too many management reforms and give the DoD too little time to implement them. Instead, Congress should focus on five to eight reforms it wants done well and grant the Department of Defense adequate time to implement those changes.

Too Many Reforms

Over the past 4 years, Congress has annually mandated anywhere from 36 to 71 management reforms for the DoD. The majority of those reforms have focused on acquisition and human resources management. This focus makes sense since the DoD runs the largest acquisition system in the world. Beyond management, the NDAAs also directed DoD to implement from 17 to 36 cultural reforms per year. These are just too many changes for the country’s largest employer.

Too Little Time

Not only does Congress mandate too many reforms, it doesn’t give DoD enough time to do anything about them. On average, Congress gives the DoD 6 months to implement reforms. Those timelines get cut even shorter when Congress doesn’t pass an NDAA on time — which Congress has done only four times in the past 20 years. Last year’s NDAA mandated that DoD implement 107 management and cultural reforms. None of those 107 reforms gave DoD more than 13 months to change.

Kelly Ann McCarty

Why It’s Too Much

The DoD is the world’s largest bureaucracy — too big and complex not to have major management problems. But experts recommend that a Secretary of Defense focus on four to five reforms over his or her tenure. Ed Schein’s organizational culture research supports that recommendation, emphasizing that changes takes considerable management focus and consistency over time. In addition to a lack of focus, Congress’ interventions inject planning instability and raise costs. A 1990 Office of the Secretary of Defense report found that in just the fiscal 1989 NDAA, interventions by Congress increased program costs by over half a billion dollars. That’s more than $1 billion in current dollars).

Congressionally Mandated Reforms Aren’t All Bad

But Congressional intervention isn’t all negative. Congress has the constitutional authority and responsibility to govern how the DoD operates. Civil-military relations scholars also stress that the separation of powers demands that Congress get involved at the administrative detail level. Yet the number of statutorily-mandated defense management and cultural reforms — and their associated timelines — erode trust between the DoD and Congress. If the DoD fails to execute a reform, the Congress perceives that the DoD ignored its directives or is too resistant to change. It’s even likely that Congress mandates too many reforms to even check if they’re being done.

Former DoD deputy chief management officer Peter Levine says DoD should focus on a small number of achievable reforms. In this year’s NDAA Congress should limit itself to the 5 to 8 reforms it actually wants implemented and be realistic about how long that will take. Especially while the DoD deals with crises — like COVID-19 — and ongoing operations. When Congress mandates hundreds of changes, all of which are statutorily “no fail,” it can’t expect the DoD to implement every one well and on time. Even Thornberry acknowledged that sometimes Congress gives DoD too many things to do and some things fall through the cracks. Though Congressional leaders acknowledge this problem, they won’t be able to help themselves when they mandate another 100 changes this year. Try to stop at one potato chip.

Kelly Ann McCarty is a Master of Public Policy student at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. After serving in the U.S. Army, she is now a Pat Tillman Foundation Scholar and Carlucci Fellow focusing on National Security Policy.

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