GAO: Headquarters reduction plan still missing at Pentagon

The Pentagon wants to start the process of cutting 20 percent from its headquarters staff. But it still doesn't know who should stay, who should leave, or how t...

By Sean McCalley
Federal News Radio

The Pentagon still plans to cut 20 percent of its headquarters staff by fiscal year 2019. But there’s one glaring problem with that plan: The Pentagon has no idea how to make it happen. Or if it even should.

The Defense Department doesn’t have a system in place yet to decide who it really needs and who it can afford to let go, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office. Right now, DoD only knows how many people it can’t have, based on statutory limits set back in 1999 and 1986 to prevent job duplication. But even those limits are a problem for the Pentagon: As of fiscal 2013, Naval headquarters staff was 74 percent over the limit (at 4,960 people) and Army headquarters staff was 17.2 percent over the limit (at 3,639 people).

To be fair, the Pentagon received waivers on those limits every year since 2002, because every year the President declared a national emergency. But the numbers themselves are skewed because they don’t consider every type of employee that works on headquarters-related projects, like specific types of acquisition managers.

So that means the actual size of the Pentagon’s headquarters workforce is probably much larger than it estimates. The Army says it has more than 1,500 employees that might qualify, but it doesn’t have to report. So just looking at the numbers without the backdrop of an annual emergency declaration, the Pentagon faces a large risk of job duplication and inefficiency.

“Organizations need to know what they have and what they need,” said GAO’s Director of Defense Capabilities and Management Issues, John Pendleton, on In Depth with Francis Rose. “And with respect to DoD’s management of its headquarters organization, we have significant concerns.”

Across-the-board cuts

The Pentagon realizes the problem at hand, and has a specific goal in mind. In July 2013, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered a 20 percent budget cut “across the top” of the Pentagon for his staff and the Pentagon offices of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. Hagel expects the cuts, scheduled to occur between 2015 and 2019, to save between $1.5 and $2 billion.

But the GAO says DoD still doesn’t have a specific plan of action to meet that goal. That plan should include specific information for who needs to stay and who needs to leave; periodic reassessments to make sure requirements haven’t changed; and specific reasons why reducing headquarters staff to a certain point will make a profound impact on how the agency runs, according to the report.

To that end, an across-the-board 20 percent cut might not even be what the Pentagon really needs, said Pendleton. Without a way to know who’s important and why, it’s impossible to know if they should really stay or go.

Even the statutory limits are ineffective, according to Pendleton. Not only are they between 16 and 28 years old, but the waivers in place for specific management categories don’t paint a full picture of where the Pentagon’s workforce actually stands. For example, they don’t include any support staff that are necessary for DoD headquarters to function.

The Army’s management support staff is “almost three times as large as the Secretariat and Staff, but personnel who perform headquarters-related functions in these organizations are excluded from the limits,” wrote GAO. “Without a systematic determination of personnel requirements and periodic reassessment of them, DoD will not be well positioned [to fix them].”

Whatever plan the Pentagon decides upon, it will apply to both civilian employees and contractors. That’s in addition to the Pentagon’s plan to cut its civil servant payroll by five percent between now and 2018.

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