Defense Management Reform
How to Make the Pentagon Work Better and Cost Less
Peter Levine



The Problem of Defense Management

ON February 9, 2015, the Defense Business Board (DBB)—a panel of corporate business leaders established to provide independent advice to the secretary of defense—reported that it had found a way to slash waste in the Department of Defense (DOD). “We see a clear path to saving over $125 billion over the next five years,” the DBB reported.1 The projected savings were the product of a simple mathematical calculation. Savings of $125 billion would be achieved, the DBB declared, if the DOD met a “realistic goal” of 7 percent annual productivity gains in six “Core Business Processes.”2 Moreover, nobody would have to be fired. The department could achieve the savings by just not replacing the 25 to 30 percent of the DOD civilian workforce that was projected to retire or leave over a five-year period.3

The report was much less clear on how the 7 percent productivity gains necessary to meet the savings targets could be achieved, suggesting timelines to “stand up and train teams,” “design initiatives,” “deploy productivity initiatives,” and “track savings.”4 Approaches to be considered included more efficient use of service contracts, streamlined organizational structures, and rationalized business systems.5 None of these approaches was particularly revolutionary. The DOD had tried all of them before, with significant investments of time and effort leading to marginal success. The DBB had said, in effect, “We gave you the dollar amount, now you go and find the savings.”

For almost two years, the report sat on the shelf, ignored by the DOD, the press, and the public. Then, in December 2016, the report was thrust back into the spotlight with a Washington Post article by Craig Whitlock and Bob Woodward under the headline “Pentagon Buries Evidence of $125 Billion in Bureaucratic Waste.”6 The article pointed out that DBB chair Robert Stein had been replaced three months after the study was completed. “They’re all complaining that they don’t have any money,” Stein was quoted as saying. “We proposed a way to save a ton of money.”7 The implication was clear: senior DOD officials could easily have saved $125 billion dollars if they had only wanted to—they just didn’t have the guts to go after waste and inefficiency.

On May 23, 2015, one month after Stein was replaced as DBB chair, I was confirmed by the Senate to serve as the DOD’s deputy chief management officer (DCMO). The DCMO was established in 2007 to ensure that a senior official had formal, full-time responsibility to oversee DOD management—including the issues that the DBB claimed the DOD had been neglecting. Unfortunately, there is a huge gap between the objectives of the DCMO and the capabilities and authorities of the office. Before I was confirmed, the position of DCMO had been vacant for the better part of two years, and it was not clear that anybody in the department had even noticed.

Some of my colleagues felt that I deserved what I got in the new assignment. For the previous twenty-eight years, I had worked for Senator Carl Levin on the staffs of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) and the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee (SGAC). In these positions, I advised senators on defense management issues and advocated the more efficient use of service contracts, workforce improvements, the rationalization of business systems and processes, and other reforms. In fact, I had recommended the legislation that established the position of DCMO, out of a sincere belief that a greater focus on management issues was needed at senior levels of the Pentagon. It seemed only fair that I should be the one to try to make the office work.

After I had been on the job for a few weeks, Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work called me into his office and told me that because of the strict budget caps imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011, the DOD needed to look for money anywhere it could be found. “How much money can you save through management efficiencies?” he asked. I guessed about $5 billion over the five years of the Future Years Defense Program (FYDP), and he told me to get to work. Over the next year, most of my time was directed toward achieving those savings.

With the deputy secretary’s support, we put together a proposal to reduce the size of the department’s management headquarters, cut low-priority service contracts, and reap savings from fielding new business systems. We incorporated proposals from the department’s chief information officer to achieve additional savings by rationalizing the department’s information technology (IT) applications through enterprise licensing and data center consolidation. We established working groups, review boards, and other consultative mechanisms to ensure that the projected management changes were actually implemented and achieved the projected savings.

Over the course of the year, our projected savings went as high as $10 billion, before dropping back to $7 billion as we came to grips with the real world in which our plans would have to be implemented. Even though our initiatives covered much of the same ground as the DBB (service contract reviews, organizational delayering, and IT rationalization), however, we never thought that it was remotely possible that we could achieve overhead savings anywhere close to the $125 billion proposed by the board’s January report.

Why not?

First, the DOD budget does not have a line item for waste. Inefficiency is embedded in thousands of different work processes and organizational structures throughout the department. As tempting as it may be to seek “quick wins” and immediate savings, there are few shortcuts, and easy solutions rarely result in long-term improvements. Across-the-board reductions cut good programs and bad programs alike, adding to bottlenecks, slow-downs, and backlogs. If you really want to root out waste and inefficiency, you have to go through the painstaking process of reviewing processes and organizations one step at a time. Since the easiest savings are identified first, it gets harder and harder as you go. Defense dollars may be spent in large buckets, but savings are typically identified and implemented in small spoonfuls.

As former secretary of defense Robert Gates explained in 2015, trying to achieve savings through “mindless salami slicing of programs and organizations” is tempting but amounts to “managerial and political cowardice.” “True reform,” he said, “requires making trades and choices and tough decisions, recognizing that some activities are more important than others. It is hard to do, but essential if you are to reshape any organization into a more effective and efficient enterprise.”8 He added, “At the end of the day, re-drawing the organization chart or enacting new acquisitions laws and rules will matter less than leaders skilled enough to execute programs effectively, willing to make tough, usually unpopular choices, and establish strong measures of accountability.”9

Second, many of the good ideas have already been tried. For example, the 2015 DBB report suggested that the department could save between $46 and $89 billion through “optimization” of service contract spending. However, every specific idea proposed by the DBB with regard to service contracts had already been tried. As early as 2001 and 2002, SASC required the department to adopt private sector practices, including “conducting spending analyses, rationalizing supplier bases, and expanding the use of cross-functional, commodity-based teams.”10 Over the years that followed, the department went through round after round of service contract reviews and reductions. There is still money to be saved, but it is fanciful to believe that the DOD could suddenly save tens of billions of dollars by reviewing spending that it has already been squeezing for years.

Third, any significant change in DOD organizations or processes is likely to encounter significant institutional resistance. For example, when the department first took on defense commissary reform, it ran into a wall of opposition from military and veterans service organizations, which viewed any reduction in the commissary subsidy as a cut in military compensation. When I took over the effort as DCMO, we developed an approach that would save money by making the commissaries more efficient without reducing benefits to service members, retirees, and their families. Congress became more supportive, but we continued to encounter resistance from commissary suppliers who benefitted from the old, inefficient system.

Finally, real reform requires an up-front investment of time and resources. The DBB projected that the department would achieve 9 percent savings in the first year of the program. We knew that it would take at least a year to identify needed changes, get policies in place, and start drilling down to implement them through the department. Thus, the first year would likely require a net expenditure, not a net saving. Too often in the past, the DOD has made the mistake of assuming that efficiencies would be easily achieved and locking early savings into the budget. When the savings did not materialize, the bills had to be paid by cutting operational accounts, which undermines military capabilities. There are no easy victories in defense management: you get what you pay for, in both money and time.

So what makes a defense management reform initiative successful? I break success down into three steps.

• First, the initiative has to provide a targeted solution to the right set of problems. The resources that the department can devote to reform are limited, so focusing on low-priority problems or on too many problems at the same time can be counterproductive.

• Second, the initiative has to be enacted or approved. Even a well-designed and targeted management reform cannot be effective if it is never tried. A major initiative is most likely to gain traction if it has support from both political parties, from the executive branch and Congress, and from the interested public.

• Third, the initiative has to be effectively implemented on a lasting basis. Successful implementation requires strong leadership and continuous engagement with the affected components and functional communities across the department.


Early in my Senate career, I learned that progress comes best in bite-sized chunks, with focused solutions to clearly defined problems. Just six months after I started work for Senator Levin, we held hearings on efforts to protect employees who blow the whistle on waste, fraud, and abuse in the federal government. We learned that although the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 had established a legal mechanism for protecting whistleblowers, the mechanism was not effective. At that time, the government was pursuing only 5 percent of the cases in which whistleblowers sought relief, and even those cases were rarely successful because of unfavorable legal standards. As a result, 70 percent of government employees who had knowledge of waste, fraud, and abuse said that they would not report it, and the number of employees who feared reprisal had almost doubled—from 20 percent to 37 percent—in less than five years.11

Senator Levin responded with a carefully targeted approach to the problem. He introduced a bill that established new, more favorable legal standards for whistleblower cases and authorized whistleblowers who were not satisfied with the government’s actions on their behalf to bring an individual right of action. It took two years of work, but the Whistleblower Protection Act of 198912 was the first major piece of legislation signed by President George H. W. Bush, and the standard of proof that we developed for the bill has since been replicated in other whistleblower protection statutes across the federal government.

Other projects followed, addressing issues such as the DOD’s excess inventory of obsolete and unneeded spare parts; the department’s reliance on elaborate military specifications instead of simplified commercial item descriptions; the improper use of inside information in the procurement process; the use of interagency contracting mechanisms to avoid competition requirements; the acquisition of contract services; the impact of deep cuts to the acquisition workforce; the mismanagement of wartime contracting; the need for rapid acquisition authority to meet battlefield needs; and problems with counterfeit parts and lack of security in the DOD supply chain.

One of my proudest moments came in 2009, when Senator Levin determined that we had to do something about excessive cost growth in the DOD’s biggest weapons programs. We drafted a bill that focused relentlessly on improving the front end of the acquisition process, which experts told us drove higher acquisition costs. The Weapon Systems Acquisition Reform Act of 200913 was approved unanimously by both houses of Congress and made a real difference in controlling weapon systems cost growth.

Along the way, I learned the risk of relying on one-size-fits-all solutions in circumstances where they do not fit. A warranty or a fixed-price contract that protects the buyer’s interest when a consumer purchases a television set or a car may not be effective for the purchase of an advanced aircraft or missile system. Streamlined commercial purchasing techniques that reduce overhead in the purchase of off-the-shelf items may undermine important government interests when applied to the acquisition of military-unique weapon systems. And an audited financial statement that provides important information about the value of a commercial enterprise may have no similar use when applied to a federal agency.

An even greater risk is the failure to consider not only what is broken but what is not broken. For example, the “up-or-out” policy that serves as the basis for officer personnel management in today’s military has been criticized for being out of step with the demographics of the twenty-first-century job market, for pushing highly trained officers with critical skills into premature retirement, and for limiting the department’s access to talent that will be needed to respond to emerging threats. Respected experts have advocated eliminating the up-or-out policy, scrapping mandatory promotion timelines and mandatory retirement dates, and applying market-based solutions to officer assignments and career advancement.

While the diagnosis has much truth, some of the prescriptions would be worse than the disease. The up-or-out policy helps shape the military by ensuring that the officer corps is continually refreshed and by providing a competitive environment in which it is possible to provide responsibility to developing leaders at an early age. In a culture that finds it difficult to say “no” to anybody, this system also provides an essential forcing function to remove weaker performers from the force. When I served as the under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness (USD[P&R]), I sought to address shortcomings in officer career patterns by adding needed flexibility to a working system—not by tearing that system down.

The Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 (“Goldwater-Nichols”)14 is often considered to be the gold standard of defense reform. Goldwater-Nichols, which was enacted over the strong objections of the secretary of defense and the joint chiefs of staff, sought to address organizational weaknesses that made it difficult for the services to work together, undermining military operations. As a result of Goldwater-Nichols, “jointness” is now widely accepted throughout the DOD as an operating concept and as a key to military advancement—significantly enhancing the operational effectiveness of our armed forces.

Some have argued that the Goldwater-Nichols experience shows that the Pentagon cannot reform itself because “there are too many conflicting interests and priorities and parochial interests that just can’t be overcome from within. They’re going to have to be addressed from an external source.”15 Others have pointed to the long deliberative period before the statute was enacted and have argued that “possibly the most important factor in passing the Goldwater-Nichols Act was the relentless bipartisan effort of its sponsors over the course of nearly five years to methodically study relevant issues and build consensus reform, even in the face of strong opposition from the Department.”16

It is certainly true that outside pressure—in the form of legislation or adverse publicity—can play an important role in helping DOD leaders overcome internal opposition to undertake needed reforms. Congress devoted unparalleled attention to Goldwater-Nichols, with five years of hearings and consensus building preceding the enactment of the statute and continuous oversight for decades thereafter. When I became SASC staff director more than twenty-five years later, the first question that the committee asked of every nominee for a senior military position was still, “Do you support the Goldwater-Nichols organizational reforms?”

However, three other factors contributed greatly to the success of the legislation. First was a specific, well-defined problem: a series of operational failures experienced by the US military. Second was an identified root cause: the inability of the military services to function as a unified force. Third was a course of action that directly addressed the root cause. As Senator Sam Nunn explained while Goldwater-Nichols was under consideration, “Every time we’ve failed or performed poorly—such as Vietnam, Mayaguez, Pueblo, Beirut, Grenada—it can be traced to the lack of unity of command. . . . We must give [our commanders] the authority they need to meld units from all services into an effective fighting force.”17

By the time Goldwater-Nichols was enacted, it ran to a hundred pages and touched major parts of the defense organization. However, the singular purpose of the act was to strengthen field commanders by establishing unity of command. The critical provision required that all forces operating within the geographic area of a combatant command be under the control of a single combatant commander and that the chain of command for those forces—regardless of military service involved—runs from the president to the secretary of defense and from the secretary to the combatant commander.18 Other provisions reinforced the unity of command by eliminating the role of the military departments in operational matters and establishing joint officer personnel policies to break down the old, service-centric culture.

In essence, Goldwater-Nichols successfully changed the way the military operated because it was a powerful hammer blow delivered with precision aim to the head of a single nail.

By contrast, when Senator John McCain set out to reform DOD organization and management in 2015, he identified problems ranging from a declining force structure, aging equipment, and cost overruns to the quality of military advice to civilian leaders and the effectiveness of civilian oversight of the military.19 SASC heard from dozens of witnesses at hearings addressing Goldwater-Nichols, defense reform, defense organization, defense strategy and force structure, the future of warfare, the roles and missions of the armed forces, obstacles to effective management, acquisition reform, personnel reform, and the development of policy, strategy, and plans.20

One year later, Congress produced the most voluminous National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) ever, with a record 1,545-page conference report.21 With regard to DOD organization and management, however, the bill was remarkably thin. A new requirement for a National Defense Strategy replaced the Quadrennial Defense Review; the department was directed to establish a unified combatant command for cyber operations; and the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics (USD[AT&L]) was split in two. Reasonable observers will debate the usefulness of these organizational reforms. It is unlikely, however, that any of them will fundamentally change the Pentagon bureaucracy or make the DOD a more innovative, agile, efficient, or effective organization.

My former colleagues on the SASC staff hoped to address the department’s management problems with a provision requiring the secretary to establish a set of “cross-functional mission teams” to “produce comprehensive and fully integrated policies, strategies, plans, and resourcing decisions.”22 The new cross-functional teams, the committee report asserted, would fill in “an unfinished goal of the original Goldwater-Nichols reform agenda” by “correcting the mission integration problems in the Washington headquarters organizations” of the Pentagon.23 The result would be “the best possible policy, strategy, planning, and resource allocation decision making.”24

In contrast to the original Goldwater-Nichols Act, which provided a targeted set of solutions to a single, well-defined problem, this provision offered a single solution for the widest possible array of problems. Indeed, while the law spelled out the structure of cross-functional teams in exquisite detail, it was notably silent on the problems that these teams were to address. The SASC report provided only that the secretary of defense would be required to “identify the missions, other high-priority outputs, and important activities of the Department of Defense” for which mission teams would be established.25

The SASC report asserted that the cross-functional teams would be able to overcome the department’s parochial bureaucratic structures and develop “clear, coherent, efficacious courses of action” rather than a “lowest-common-denominator consensus” because they would work directly for the secretary of defense.26 This view was based on two fundamental misunderstandings. First, the department’s functional communities speak for important institutional interests that do not disappear just because they are ignored. Second, the time and energy of the secretary of defense is a scarce and finite resource that cannot be increased by law. Legislating that the secretary will give his personal time and attention to a set number of mission teams established by congressional directive does not make it so.

The new administration did its best to comply with the legislation, dutifully designating working groups on major issues as “cross-functional teams.” In the summer of 2017, the department established cross-functional teams to address IT systems, logistics and supply chain management, real property management, community services, human resource management, financial management, acquisition and procurement, and health care management. The teams were directed to develop detailed work plans within sixty days and then turn immediately to the development and deployment of revised business processes and procedures.27

Two years later, there was no evidence that the new cross-functional teams had been any more decisive, innovative, or effective than working groups previously used in the department. In January 2019, the Government Accountability Office reported that only a handful of business reform initiatives developed by the cross-functional teams had been handed off to the military services for implementation. The department estimated that it would need at least $6.7 billion to implement the initiatives, but no funding had been identified.28 Congress has an important role to play in setting priorities and establishing ground rules for DOD operations and activities, but good management is impossible to legislate.


Even a well-designed and targeted management reform cannot be effective if it is never tried. For a legislative initiative, a bill has to be enacted. A statute can be enacted in a single day or it can be the product of years of effort. The strongest legislative products, however, are the result of a deliberative process that begins with the exploration of problems, continues with the development of solutions, and concludes with the building of consensus. In legislative terms, these steps often take the form of staff investigation and oversight hearings, the drafting of legislation and legislative hearings, and then committee markup and floor consideration.

My first major legislative experience followed this classic pattern. We started with an investigation of the Wedtech scandal—the case of a small business in the Bronx that used political connections to skirt procurement rules and obtain large Army and Navy contracts that it was incapable of performing. Our Wedtech report found that loopholes in the federal lobbying laws had enabled the company’s influence-peddling activities to proceed undiscovered for years.29 We then investigated the lobbying disclosure laws themselves, learning that they were so dysfunctional that lobbyists were choked by paperwork without providing any useful information at all.

The Lobbying Disclosure Act was signed into law in 1995, cleaning up a problem that we had identified and addressed through the course of eight years of investigation, hearings, and legislative effort.30 The key to the enactment of the legislation—beyond the obvious doggedness of its chief sponsor—was the strong bipartisan support it received in both houses. The importance of bipartisanship was drummed into me from the time I first arrived on Capitol Hill. If a Democratic senator wanted to get legislation enacted, I learned that the first step was always to find a Republican cosponsor. A bill that had only Democrats or only Republicans as sponsors was unlikely to get out of committee, and if it did, it would probably not be taken up on the Senate floor.

The Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act (FASA) provided an even better model of bipartisan legislation in this period. In the early 1990s, Congress received an eight-volume, 1,800-page report from the “Section 800” independent acquisition advisory commission.31 The report included a detailed prescription for streamlining the acquisition system, including recommendations to amend or repeal nearly three hundred laws—far more than congressional committees could hope to sort through in the normal course of business. Moreover, some of the recommendations were controversial, threatening a negative reaction to the whole project.

A bipartisan, multicommittee staff working group was established to break through the potential gridlock. Over the next eight months, the staff group met every week to review the Section 800 report line-by-line and develop provision-by-provision recommendations. In these discussions, as in most of our staff work, it was never relevant who was a Republican or who was a Democrat—we were all just working to get the legislation right. After joint hearings by SASC and the SGAC, the bill passed the Senate by unanimous consent and was eventually approved by the House 425–0.32 The legislative process took two years, but the result was a piece of landmark legislation that dramatically streamlined the procurement system and that has stood the test of time.33

When I moved from SGAC to SASC staff in 1996, I found an equally constructive approach. The tenor was set from the top. Senator Levin always had an excellent working relationship with his Republican counterpart, regardless whether we were in the majority or the minority and whether his opposite number was Strom Thurmond, John Warner, John McCain, or Jim Inhofe. The committee was rightly proud of its bipartisan tradition, which had resulted in the enactment of an NDAA every year since 1962. Most of these bills were reported unanimously out of committee, and, when there was a record vote on final passage, they often had the support of ninety or more senators.

The close relationship between the chairs and ranking minority members was reflected in the staff. Unlike other Senate committees, the majority and minority staffs of SASC shared office space, which facilitated friendship and teamwork. The general rule was that all meetings included majority and minority staff, so that both parties could work from a common set of information. During my eighteen years with the committee, I found that my closest working relationships were often with my Republican counterparts, because we attended all of the same meetings and worked together on a daily basis.

The committee had to address highly contentious issues every year: missile defense, base closures, funding for the Iraq War, Guantánamo detainees, the prohibition on torture, sexual assault, cuts to major weapons programs, and changes in military compensation—the list goes on and on. Nonetheless, bipartisanship was expected when it came to the committee’s legislative business. The working documents for committee markups had places for sign-off by the majority and the minority staff. Likewise, the conference working documents called for four-way sign-off by the two staffs of the House and Senate committees. It was understood that the majority could override the minority if necessary, but it was in everybody’s interest that this happen as infrequently as possible.

The few cases in which the committee’s bipartisan model broke down show the importance of this model. In 2003, confronted by a controversial proposal to overhaul the defense civilian personnel system, Senator Levin worked with Senator Susan Collins, the Republican chair of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (HSGAC), to develop a bipartisan compromise. The Collins-Levin bill was approved by the HSGAC on a near-unanimous 10–1 vote. As described later in this book, however, the Bush administration rejected the compromise and insisted on a hard-edged, single-party approach that strengthened opposition and led to the eventual collapse of the reform effort.

Three years later, Senator Levin worked with senators John Warner, John McCain, and Lindsey Graham to develop a bipartisan approach to codify in statute the military commission system for trying Guantánamo detainees.34 Once again, the administration rejected the bipartisan compromise and insisted on a single-party solution. The administration’s version of the Military Commissions Act of 2006 was enacted on a party-line vote35 and lasted barely three years before a new president and a new Congress replaced it with the Military Commissions Act of 200936—essentially the original Warner-Levin-McCain-Graham proposal. By that time, however, the military commission system was mired in constitutional challenges and procedural litigation. If military commissions ever had a chance of working, it was already long gone.

Bipartisanship may be easier for SASC and the HSGAC than for other committees because national defense and government management issues tend to enjoy broad support in both parties. In today’s Congress, however, almost any issue can become tinged with partisanship. That lack of cooperation is unfortunate. It is occasionally possible to enact a statute with the support of only a single party, but doing so is rarely a road to lasting reform.

Surprisingly, gaining approval for a management reform initiative in the executive branch can be just as hard as getting legislation enacted. You might think that the advance approval of the secretary or the deputy secretary would be enough to get the job done, but that is not the way the DOD works. While the operational chain of command in the military is simple and direct, administrative decision-making authority is diffused in a hundred directions and has as many different power centers. The direction of the secretary or the deputy secretary can be used to leverage favorable outcomes, but nothing is final until formal guidance documents are signed and funding is provided through the programming and budgeting processes.

For example, the deputy secretary liked the new business model that I proposed for the defense commissaries and exchanges and told me to go forward with it. I soon learned, however, that each of the commissaries and exchanges was a separate business unit with its own leadership, its own board of directors, and its own support from the services. Moving forward meant establishing a working group to give these groups an opportunity to express their views and concerns. I could draft a formal policy and a legislative proposal authorizing the policy, but these documents had to be “coordinated” with the leadership of the commissaries and exchanges, the military departments, and other interested DOD officials.

Even that was not all. On top of the policy approval process, reform proposals had to go through a separate programming and budget process that required the approval or acquiescence of an entirely different set of DOD officials—the service programmers and budgeters, the comptroller, and the lead DOD programmer (the director of cost accounting and program evaluation). The policy process and the programming process culminated in separate presentations to the senior leadership of the department, through the secretary’s Senior Leadership Council (SLC)37 for the policy approval and through the deputy’s Management Action Group (DMAG)38 for program and budget approval.

This process is burdensome but appropriate. Our proposed headquarters reductions, for example, had an impact on every part of the department. As smart as my staff was, they could not be expected to understand the full range of organizations, functions, and activities covered by the proposal. It took months of consultation and communication to devise a consistent set of targets and definitions and provide appropriate flexibility and exclusions. This process also helped to build a consensus in favor of the proposal. If we had failed to coordinate in this manner, we would have encountered unintended side effects and opposition from leaders whose organizations and missions were unnecessarily compromised.

My predecessor at USD(P&R) learned this lesson the hard way. On March 30, 2015, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter called for the department to “think hard about how to attract, inspire, and excite” young Americans to help build the Force of the Future (FotF).39 Assuming the secretary’s support, Acting Under Secretary Brad Carson initiated a secretive and lightning-fast review and circulated a 120-page memorandum containing dozens of far-reaching proposals, including the elimination of the long-standing “up-or-out” system for military promotions, the replacement of the existing civil service system with a new pay-for-performance approach, and the creation of an array of new personnel benefits and organizations.40

The proposals hit like a lead balloon. The military services saw the up-or-out proposal as a threat to undermine a system that had long ensured the continuous refreshment and renewal of military leadership. The federal employee unions saw the civil service proposals as an effort to slash workers’ rights and undermine the department’s civilian workforce. Republicans in Congress saw the new benefits as an effort at social engineering and a wasteful expenditure of scarce defense dollars. The opposition was fierce and quickly became personal—even growing to include unfortunate and unfounded allegations about Carson’s conduct in office.

“What the building thinks” is a phrase voiced in the Pentagon that describes the kind of concerns that can arise in opposition to proposals that have not been adequately vetted. The views of “the building” are often discounted by those who see them as nothing more than the rigid inflexibility of small-minded bureaucrats who are protecting their turf. There is no question that the Pentagon can be resistant to change, but in many cases there is good reason for the resistance. DOD officials care deeply about the mission of the department and are naturally concerned by proposals for disruptive changes that threaten to restructure organizations, unsettle existing relationships, and reduce resources in a manner that could compromise that mission.

In some cases, it is necessary to override parochial concerns in the broader interest of the department, but failure to engage and at least understand the motivation for the concerns is never a good option. Senior officials can ignore what the building thinks, but they do so at their own peril. No matter how important these officials may think they are, the building will be around a lot longer than they will. Executive branch management reform initiatives, like legislative initiatives, are most likely to succeed when their proponents invest the time and effort needed to build a broad base of support.


1. Defense Business Board, Transforming the Department of Defense’s Core Business Processes for Revolutionary Change, Report FY 15-01 (Washington, DC: Defense Business Board, February 9, 2015), 18,

2. Defense Business Board, 21.

3. Defense Business Board, 65.

4. Defense Business Board, 27.

5. Defense Business Board, 25, 26, 30–33.

6. Craig Whitlock and Bob Woodward, “Pentagon Buries Evidence of $125 Billion in Bureaucratic Waste,” Washington Post, December 5, 2016,–11e6-a0ed-ab0774c1eaa5_story.html?utm_term=.34bd161a41a3.

7. Whitlock and Woodward.

8. The Future of Defense Reform: Hearing Before the Committee on Armed Services, United States Senate, S. Hrg. 114–315, 114th Cong. (October 21, 2015) (statement of Robert M. Gates, former Secretary of Defense), 16–17,

9. Future of Defense Reform, 21.

10. National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2002: Report to Accompany S. 1416, S. Rep. No. 107-62, 107th Cong. (2001), 326,

11. Report to Accompany S. 508, S. Rept. 100–413, 100th Cong. (July 6, 1988),–413excerpts.htm#100–413-p5.

12. Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989, Pub. L. 101-12, 103 Stat. 16, 101st Cong, (1989),

13. Weapon Systems Acquisition Reform Act of 2009, Pub. L. 111–23, 123 Stat. 1704, 111th Cong. (2009),

14. Goldwater Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, Pub. L. 99–433, 100 Stat. 992, 99th Cong. (1986),

15. 30 Years of Goldwater-Nichols Reform: Hearing Before the Committee on Armed Services, United States Senate, S. Hrg. 114–316, 114th Cong. (November 10, 2015) (statement of Jim Thomas, Vice President and Director of Studies, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments), 38.

16. 30 Years of Goldwater-Nichols Reform (statement of Senator Jack Reed), 5.

17. James R. Locher, III, Victory on the Potomac: The Goldwater-Nichols Act Unifies the Pentagon, ed. Joseph G. Dawson, Texas A&M University Military History Series (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2002), 10.

18. Combatant Commands: Assigned Forces; Chain of Command, 10 U.S.C. § 162 (2010),

19. Future of Defense Reform, (statement of Senator John McCain), 3.

20. Senate Committee on Armed Services, “Hearings,” 114th Cong. (2016),

21. National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017: Conference Report to Accompany S. 2943, H. Rep. No. 114–840, 114th Cong. (November 30, 2016),

22. National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017, Pub. L. 114–328, 130 Stat. 2000, 114th Cong. (2016), SEC. 911(c)(2),

23. National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017: Report to Accompany S. 2943, S. Rpt. No. 114–255, 114th Cong. (2016), 248–49,

24. National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017: Report, 253.

25. National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017, S. 2943, 114th Cong. (2016), SEC. 941(c)(1),

26. National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017: Report, 245–46.

27. Department of Defense (DOD), Report to Congress: Restructuring the Department of Defense Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Organization and Chief Management Officer Organization—In Response to Section 901 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 (Public Law 114–328) (Washington, DC: Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, August 1, 2017), 16–21,

28. US Government Accountability Office (GAO), Defense Management: DOD Needs to Implement Statutory Requirements and Identify Resources for Its Cross-Functional Reform Teams, GAO-19–165 (Washington, DC: GAO, January 2019,; GAO, Defense Management: DOD Senior Leadership Has Not Fully Implemented Statutory Requirements to Promote Department-Wide Collaboration, GAO-18–513 (Washington, DC: GAO, June 2018),

29. Senate, Wedtech: A Review of Federal Procurement Decisions (Washington, DC: Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management of the Committee on Governmental Affairs, May 1988), 145–57.

30. Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, Pub. L. 104–65, 109 Stat. 961, 104th Cong. (1995),

31. DOD Acquisition Law Advisory Panel, Streamlining Defense Acquisition Laws (Washington, DC: DOD, Defense Systems Management College, January 1993).

32. Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act, “On Agreeing to the Conference Report: Final Vote Results for Roll Call 425,” September 20, 1994,

33. Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act of 1994, Pub. L. 103–355, 108 Stat. 3243, 103rd Cong. (1994),

34. “Military Commissions Act of 2006,” Congressional Record 152, no. 123 (September 27, 2006): S10243 (Sen. Levin),

35. Military Commissions Act of 2006, Pub. L 109–366, 120 Stat. 2600, 109th Cong. (2006),

36. National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010, Pub. L. 111-84, 123 Stat. 2190, 111th Cong. (2009), Title XVIII, Military Commissions Act of 2009,

37. The SLC includes the secretaries of the military departments, the service chiefs, the under secretaries of defense, and the combatant commanders.

38. The DMAG includes the under secretaries of the military departments, the vice chiefs of the services, the under secretaries of defense, and other senior Office of the Secretary of Defense leaders.

39. DOD, “Remarks by Secretary Carter on the Force of the Future” (Washington, DC: DOD Press Office, March 30, 2015),

40. DOD, Force of the Future (Washington, DC: DOD), posted online by Government Executive, September 16, 2015,