Burros, Bureaucrats, and Reformers

May 1, 1986

The Packard Commission on defense management (see p. 198) is hardly alone in charting new directions for military procurement. Packard’s final report isn’t in yet, but Congress has already erupted with a gusher of new legislation about the way the Pentagon acquires weapon systems. This comes atop some 4,000 existing laws that govern–and threaten to strangle–the acquisition process.

A feature common to many of the current reform proposals is a call for major structural change, mainly reorganization of the acquisition machinery of the services and the Defense Department. While a certain amount of Pentagon reorganizing may be worthwhile, the reformers have made this too dominant an ingredient in their brew.

The armed forces have worked diligently on procurement reform for the past five years. Cost overruns on major systems, growing at a rate of fourteen percent a year in 1981, now seem to be averaging less than one percent. Baselining, a technique pioneered by the Air Force, curbs nonessential change to a system once development has begun. The percentage of defense contracts let on the bases of competitive bid and fixed price has doubled since 1980. This is not to say that the Pentagon’s end of the acquisition process is perfect, but it is the end that has shown the most improvement.

Congress tends to deal with its end of the problem by pumping more legislative molasses into the works. Instability of system budgets, a leading reason why weapons cost so much and take so long to produce, is worse than ever. Another traditional problem, micromanagement of programs by levels above the program manager’s head, has been checked within the services to some degree by baselining, but Congress still micromanages to its heart’s content.

The major reform packages to emerge so far including the initial report of the Packard Commission, nod toward congressional culpability. Their toughest language, though, and their strongest prescriptions are reserved for the Department of Defense.

There are several things wrong with this. The defense acquisition problem cannot simply be reorganized away, because it is not an organizational problem. And the scope of it transcends both the Pentagon and the defense acquisition process.

The Packard Commission recognizes, correctly, that there is no rational system by which the national leadership agrees on a military strategy, the forces to implement it, and funding for those forces within the context of the overall economy and competing claims for resources. In reality, defense requirements are scaled to fit available funding, which is notoriously unpredictable. The scaling is usually downward and occurs late in the process.

Planning and programming come before budgeting in this process, but much of the early work is thrown out in the wild fray of slashing and substituting as the final budget is assembled and voted on. The scramble plays merry hob with carefully crafted acquisition strategies. For reasons that have nothing to do with requirements or sound procurement practices, programs are liable to be reduced, deferred, stretched out, or funded at levels too low to ensure efficient production rates. It is difficult to see how reorganizing the Pentagon or the acquisition commands can help with this.

An often-stated objective of reorganization is to get the host of single-issue advocates off the program manager’s back. Rep. Jim Courter (R-N. J.) observes that defense measures become bogged down with” extraneous provisions concerning such pressing questions as how best to resettle homeless burros.” To the extent that this is the case, it’s a consequence of policy, not bureaucratic structure. (Mr. Courter himself associates it with the number of congressional committees and subcommittees– forty-six by his count–exercising oversight of the Department of Defense.)

If the policymakers want all federal actions to reflect concern for homeless burros, then it makes little sense to eliminate or ignore the burro advocates in the acquisition agencies. The existence of a large bureaucracy is a function of the complexity of national policies.

The problems can’t be regulated away, either. The principal effect of piling on restrictions and requirements is to make the process even more confusing and difficult to administer. The Packard Commission says that federal procurement statutes should be recodified into a single statute characterized by simplicity and consistency. This is a splendid idea, but the present deluge of procurement legislation is a reminder that congressmen are fiercely independent and disinclined to be consolidated or simplified into anything.

Yanking the Pentagon around, shuffling the organizational charts, and telling bureaucrats to do more of this and less of that may relieve the frustrations of the politicians. It may also appeal to that segment of the public that believes that acquisition of a high-technology weapon isn’t much different, really, than buying a lawnmower. It may even scare some of the bureaucrats into tidying up their act in minor ways. But it will not advance appreciably the cause of acquiring the best weapons at the best price.

The real solutions are likely to be slow and dull, not quick and flashy. And a total solution will not be found if the Defense Department is the sole target for reform.