Report card on Pentagon management shows mixed record

GAO finds uncertainty about who’s responsible for efficiency

Rep. Ken Calvert has expressed concerns about the number of civilians on the Pentagon payroll. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Ken Calvert has expressed concerns about the number of civilians on the Pentagon payroll. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 3, 2021 at 2:27pm

The Defense Department has made progress tackling management problems in the past two years but “significant” challenges remain, the Government Accountability Office told Congress in its latest annual assessment of “high-risk” challenges across the government. 

Of 36 areas identified by the GAO, five are chiefly a concern for the Pentagon. For other issues, such as cybersecurity or security clearance reviews, the Pentagon is one of the departments that plays a partial role in dealing with the problem. 

The report cites Pentagon progress in a number of areas but calls out the department for falling short on several issues. One top concern, according to the GAO, is the lack of an adequate plan for replacing the functions performed by the Pentagon’s chief management officer, a position terminated a few months ago by the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA.

Another Pentagon problem area, the report said, is shortages of expert personnel in cybersecurity and software. And a third imperative is for the Pentagon to decide which organization will lead the way in protecting certain critical technologies. 

Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, head of the GAO, presented the report Tuesday to a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. 

“Tens of billions of dollars in additional benefits and substantial improvements to the health, well-being, and security of the nation would be achieved by fully addressing high-risk issues,” Dodaro wrote in the report, referring to GAO’s governmentwide recommendations.

Office disbanded by Congress

The Defense Department’s chief management officer position was created, at the GAO’s urging, in the fiscal 2017 NDAA to centralize control over Defense Department business operations in an office that would become, at least for a few years, one of the department’s most powerful.

However, Congress was unimpressed with the work of the new office. Lawmakers disbanded it in the latest NDAA and gave the Pentagon a year to transfer the duties to other offices. 

The Pentagon expected Congress to do that and announced in January a plan to divvy up the CMO’s work, giving the Defense Department comptroller many of the CMO’s old duties. Now comes the GAO with a warning that key oversight functions could fall through the cracks during this transition.

“While DOD’s actions over the past two years demonstrate a continued leadership commitment to business transformation, uncertainty about the responsibility for spearheading DOD reform and efficiency efforts calls into question whether this leadership commitment can be sustained,” the report said. 

It is not clear, the GAO said, whether the offices taking on business oversight roles will have appropriate “authorities and resources.”

The GAO also warned that such reorganizations take years.

“We have previously reported that in cases in which leadership changed — or was briefly absent — interagency collaborative mechanisms and related progress either disappeared or were considerably hindered,” it said. 

Weapons oversight inconsistent

Acquiring defense hardware is a long-standing concern of GAO auditors, and it has been on the high-risk list since 1990. The Pentagon has plans to develop 106 new weapons at a cost of $1.8 trillion, the GAO said. Despite the Defense Department leadership’s commitment in recent years to improving oversight of these programs, and some progress in results, the department suffers from “inconsistent implementation of knowledge-based acquisition practices, even among its newer programs,” the auditors wrote. 

As the U.S. military develops new weapons, information technology is key. Yet the Pentagon has not adequately addressed a dearth of experienced personnel in two key areas that are related, the report said: cybersecurity experts to test equipment and people with expertise in developing software, which has emerged as the driver of innovation, cost and complexity in U.S. weapons. 

As of December 2020, 114 GAO recommendations for improving the Pentagon’s acquisition of weapons remain unimplemented, including 56 that were made in the past two years alone, the report said.

Security clearances a concern

Another top concern for the auditors is the ability of the federal government, and the Pentagon in particular, to keep out of the wrong hands knowledge of certain technologies that are critical to national security. 

The National Security Council last October issued a list of such technologies, including space systems and artificial intelligence. And a Defense Department task force has been working on the issue since 2018. But GAO said the Pentagon has yet to decide which office will oversee efforts to protect these systems. 

The federal government’s security clearance reviews are another top concern. The Pentagon has taken over from the Office of Personnel Management the duty of overseeing the reviews. But the transition is not yet complete and bears watching, the GAO said, stressing that the Pentagon still needs a strategic workforce plan.

Progress on office space

Despite the Pentagon’s lack of progress in grappling with several top issues, GAO credited the department with making strides in several other areas.

Leading this list is the challenge of reducing the department’s spending on facilities and office space that is excess to its needs. The department has made so much headway in this area, in fact, that the challenge was removed from the list of high-risk issues. 

The Pentagon has also done well hiring more trained acquisition personnel to oversee its programs, the GAO said, despite lagging in hiring cybersecurity and software experts.

Still, the size and cost of the acquisition workforce has been a target for budget-cutters in Congress, especially some Republicans. 

Rep. Ken Calvert of California, the top Republican on the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, expressed concerns about the number of civilians on the Pentagon payroll at a Feb. 24 hearing of the panel.