They say there are no new ideas in Washington. A good example of this are the various recent proposals to reform defense spending and the way the Department of Defense operates in order to cut overhead expenses and avoid catastrophic cuts in military capabilities. These proposals generally fall into three categories: reduce excess infrastructure, shrink the size of the workforce and alter the compensation structure and reform the acquisition process, in particular, by getting rid of burdensome oversight, regulatory and reporting requirements. These are all good suggestions and could, if taken as a whole, achieve sufficient savings to at least equal the cuts in defense spending required by sequestration.
But these are not new ideas. In fact, virtually all defense reform efforts of the past half century have proposed similar solutions. The most successful of these efforts was the 1986 Packard Commission. The Commission’s recommendations regarding military organization and command were particularly valuable, paving the way for the landmark Goldwater-Nichols legislation. Its critique of the Pentagon’s dysfunctional acquisition system could have been written today. Here is a small sampling of the Commission’s observations:
“Over the long term, there has been chronic instability in top-line funding and, even worse, in programs. This eliminates key economies of scale, stretches out programs, and discourages contractors from making the long-term investments required to improve productivity.”
“Federal law governing procurement has become overwhelmingly complex. Each new statute adopted by Congress has spawned more administrative regulation. As law and regulation have proliferated, defense acquisition has become ever more bureaucratic and encumbered by unproductive layers of management and overstaffing.”
“Common sense, the indispensable ingredient for a successful system, has not always governed acquisition strategies. More competition, for example, is beneficial, but the mechanistic pursuit of competition for its own sake would be inefficient and sacrifice quality–with harmful results.”
“The nation’s defense programs lose far more too inefficient procedures than to fraud and dishonesty. The truly costly problems are those of overcomplicated organization and rigid procedure, not avarice or connivance.”
The Packard Commission’s recommendations for reforming the acquisition system were equally blunt. For example:
“Short, unambiguous lines of communication among levels of management, small staffs of highly competent professional personnel, an emphasis on innovation and productivity, smart buying practices, and, most importantly, a stable environment of planning and funding–all are characteristic of efficient and successful management. These characteristics should be hallmarks of defense acquisition.”
“Rather than relying on excessively rigid military specifications, DoD should make much greater use of components, systems, and services available ‘off the shelf.’ ”
“Federal law and DoD regulations should provide for substantially increased use of commercial-style competition, relying on inherent market forces instead of governmental intervention. To be truly effective, such competition should emphasize quality and established performance as well as price, particularly for R&D and for professional services.”
“DoD must recognize the delicate and necessary balance between the government’s requirement for data and the benefit to the nation that comes from protecting the private sector’s proprietary rights.”
“Oversight of defense contractors must be better coordinated among DoD agencies and Congress.”
The Executive and Legislative branches made an effort to implement some of the Commission’s recommended reforms of defense acquisition. But over time, inertia, knee-jerk reactions to scandals and procurement problems and relatively rich defense budgets led to the weakening of what reforms were instituted.
Today, the need for reforms is not just a matter of good governance but a national security imperative. Without a radical restructuring of the Pentagon’s internal cost structure, a reduction in overhead and personnel costs and a sweeping reform of the acquisition process, the nation’s security will be at serious risk. A good first step would be to revisit the recommendations made by the Packard Commission.
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