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Efforts to empower weapons program managers must begin at the top

GAO report finds that when policy does not match practice, acquisition reform fails.

Until the Pentagon develops a weapons-buying strategy that matches the military's needs to available dollars, efforts to increase the effectiveness and accountability of executives charged with ensuring a weapons program's successful outcome will fail, according to a recent Government Accountability Office assessment of acquisition reform.

Congressional auditors blame the Pentagon's top leadership for beginning major weapons programs whose costs continually escalate and development takes much longer than planned.

Weapons acquisition managers can do little when handed programs that are not affordable, are not prioritized within a national strategy, rely on immature technologies and poorly defined requirements, and have unrealistic delivery schedules. Because so many programs are begun with weak business cases, managers are "relegated to program advocacy in order to ensure programs continue," the report noted.

Troubled by soaring weapons costs, lawmakers included language in the 2007 Defense authorization bill mandating that the Defense Department reform its weapons-buying business, a key part of which was program manager empowerment and accountability.

GAO assessed Defense's progress so far in implementing the mandated reforms in a Nov. 9 report, "Defense Acquisitions: Department of Defense Actions on Program Manager Empowerment and Accountability."

The department's program manager strategy includes:

  • Beefing up recruitment and retention incentives so top military and civilian members will compete for the most challenging assignments.
  • Exploring the use of monetary rewards, while recognizing that they involve "sensitive compensation questions" that require further study.
  • Conducting new training and education initiatives through the Defense Acquisition University and a formal mentoring program that would allow program managers to speak with former managers, retired flag officers and senior executives.
  • Instituting a specialized "professional" acquisition program management occupational series.
  • Establishing program management forums and webcasts to facilitate information sharing.

GAO says Defense's efforts to improve program manager performance will be successful only if both the Office of the Secretary of Defense and, most important, the military services actually sign on to the effort. Gaining that support is a major challenge, according to GAO.

Because policy often does not match practice, a number of acquisition reform attempts in the past have foundered. One example, the report noted, is contrary to the established best practice for program managers, which is to serve at least four years to oversee the development of major weapons; the norm is less than two years.

GAO's auditors say the Defense Department's initiatives may fail because the "overall environment" within is resistant to change. All the players involved in military weapons buying - including the requirements community, the comptroller, undersecretary of Defense for acquisition and the military services - must be unified in reforming acquisition for new policy initiatives to succeed.