Pity the Program Managers

They're forced to work in a system that almost guarantees failure.

There are about 730 people at the Defense Department who run the country's weapons development programs. They have the critically important job of developing the next generation of aircraft, missiles, submarines, communications networks and other highly complex weapons systems. They are expected to oversee annual research, development and procurement spending that the Pentagon projects will increase from $144 billion in fiscal 2005 to $185 billion by fiscal 2009.

They are also, the Government Accountability Office reported this fall (GAO-06-110), rarely held accountable when weapons programs fail to deliver results on time or within budget. This sounds awful, until you realize that the system in which the program managers are required to do their jobs falls so far short of the mark that it would be almost criminally unfair to hold them responsible for its failures.

The GAO report presents a rosy picture of life in the private sector, where success is clearly defined: Maximize profit. At the companies GAO talked to, support for program managers begins long before they ever are assigned to projects, "with high-level strategic planning and investment decisions and concerted efforts to make sure that any new initiative the company undertook was achievable within the time and money and other resources the company had available."

That description should be taken with a grain of salt. All companies will say they do these things, and the best of them actually do. But the Defense Department most assuredly does not. High-level Pentagon leaders spend time developing long-term strategies for the defense of the country, but these rarely translate into realistic plans for investments.

Instead, program managers reported to GAO, Defense leaders deliberately start more programs than they can afford and then fail to prioritize them. This creates a competition for dollars that encourages program managers to be overly optimistic about costs, deadlines and capabilities of systems.

The stated goal of weapons program management is simple and straightforward: Serve the warfighter by delivering the right product at the right time and the right price. But, "It is clear that the implied definition for success is to attract funds for new programs and to keep funds for ongoing programs," GAO reported.

That has all kinds of perverse effects. For one thing, GAO noted, "It is not in a program manager's interest to develop accurate estimates of cost, schedule and technology readiness, because honest assessments could result in lost funding." Likewise with testing: Order up an early test of a system and receive bad news, and it's likely that the money for the program will dry up.

Then there's the issue of what happens once a program is in full swing. The list of crucial aspects of ongoing management over which Pentagon program managers have little or no control is long indeed. Even if managers succeed in winning funding for a project, they can't count on it to be stable. They can't say no to new requirements placed on systems during the development process. They have only limited control over how staff is deployed as a program unfolds, and equally restricted ability to shift funds as changes occur. All these issues combine to create a final problem: rapid turnover in the program management ranks.

GAO recommended that the Pentagon develop an investment strategy that sets priorities for systems' capabilities and assesses how much they will cost in terms of time, technology, people and money. The report also urged Defense to implement a process to beef up program managers' authority and to ensure that they stay in their positions for the duration of key projects.

In a response to GAO's report, Defense officials concurred with the recommendations. They said they have implemented various policies in recent years to address shortcomings in program management and will add even more in the upcoming Quadrennial Defense Review. Here's hoping Pentagon leaders actually will follow through and that their efforts will be successful. But frankly, there's little reason to be optimistic. The central conclusions of GAO's report could have applied to defense program management at any point in the past several decades-and so could the response that improvements are right around the corner.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.