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.

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