In 20 years, the number of annual reports the Defense Department must make to Congress has nearly tripled to more than 1,400. DoD officials have tried to get a handle on this task, which required untold thousands of man-hours. For what it could do to help streamline the process, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to the director of defense capabilities and management issues at the Government Accountability Office, Elizabeth Field.
Tom Temin: Ms. Field, good to have you on.
Elizabeth Field: Thanks for having me.
Tom Temin: And just give us a sense of the scope of this reporting, because they keep piling on with every NDAA, with every defense appropriations bill. And what kind of an effort does this require with, I think it’s 1429 annual reports?
Elizabeth Field: That’s right, in fiscal year ’20, that was the number of required reports. And you’re absolutely right, it is a herculean effort for the department to track these reporting requirements and respond to them. And we looked at how the department is doing it. And it involves one person in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Legislative Affairs manually going through the various defense-related bills each year, and identifying the requirements and then assigning those requirements to different components within the department. That process is not quite as straightforward and easy as it might sound.
Tom Temin: Yes. And so do we have any idea of the number of hours spent collectively by people in the department to fulfill those requests?
Elizabeth Field: Well, that’s not something that the department tracks right now. And in fact, one of the recommendations in our report is that the department set up a system to track that. But we do know that there are some fairly significant delays in how long it takes for the department to even just assign the reporting requirements. So for example, officials in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Legislative Affairs told us that it can take them between three and six months to correctly identify the component within the department who was responsible for fulfilling the reporting requirement. And that can be a big problem, because some of these reports are due within one year of enactment.
Tom Temin: Right? So they have to go through the statutes almost line by line. And anyone who’s ever looked at a defense, say, authorization statute, that’s what 2000 pages of legalese, and then whatever other bills have reporting requirements. It’s almost a full time job, basically.
Elizabeth Field: It absolutely is, yes.
Tom Temin: All right. And you also describe the process of getting these into the hands of people that have to do it. And you also mentioned that these reports are delivered primarily as paper hard copies.
Elizabeth Field: They are. That is something that the department is hoping to change. There are some reform efforts underway, which we also examined. But right now they are delivered in hard copies. And the problems with that, I think, are obvious. It can be hard to track them down if you’re a congressional staffer and you want to know what the department said in response to a provision.
Tom Temin: And it seemed like one of your main findings here is that once this OSD person — the Office of Secretary of Defense for Legislative Affairs person — doles out all the responsibilities, that’s kind of where knowledge of the process as a whole kind of ends, and there’s no handle on what it all requires department-wide?
Elizabeth Field: I think that’s right. It’s a pretty messy picture. And we found a fair amount of duplicative effort and then some fragmentation as well. So in addition to the OSD person who’s tracking these reporting requirements, the individual components assigned people whose job it is to track these reporting requirements as well. They also have their own systems, but their systems are not interoperable with the Legislative Affairs system. And so there can be dual assignments for the same reporting requirement, which can cause a problem. And it can just be a miscommunication.
Tom Temin: Right. So in an act, I guess, that was beyond the irony filters of Congress in the latest 2021 NDAA, they asked GAO to generate a report on the reporting of Congress. And what did that specifically charge GAO with doing here?
Elizabeth Field: Well, that’s right. And I think the fact that there was this provision for us to review the process is a reflection of maybe Congress’s frustration with the Department of Defense and how long it can take to get some of these reports and also, lack of transparency when it comes to reporting. We were specifically asked to look at what the department is doing, not only currently to track these reporting requirements, but also to evaluate what the department is doing to improve and streamline its reporting requirements process.
Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Elizabeth Field. She’s director of defense capabilities and management issues at the Government Accountability Office. So you really had basically two recommendations here. And they both go right up to the OSD — the Office of the Secretary of Defense — specifically that legislative affairs person. So once again, review what it is that they should do in that office to help get a handle on all of this?
Elizabeth Field: Well, the first thing is that they need to make sure that they’re getting input from the various components throughout the department who are the ones ultimately responsible for drafting the reports in response to these requirements? We know that the Legislative Affairs Office has been examining and starting to roll out some reforms to improve the process. but we also found that the components are generally unaware that this has even been going on. So we interviewed officials from 11 DoD components. 10 of the 11 were not aware at all that the department was in any sort of reform effort. And only one of them knew specifically that the system that the department uses right now — a system called Charts — could be replaced by a new system called Salesforce.
Tom Temin: Alright. And just looking at the long-term trend here from the report, there’s an interesting chart on the number of new Department of Defense reporting requirements over time, and it’s been steadily going up. But there have been years where it drops, say 2001 to 2002 it dropped a lot. And then 2010 to 2011, it dropped a lot. But the trend is it’s ratcheting up and ratcheting up and ratcheting up over time. I mean, Congress asked you to look at DoD. Does GAO ever say, well, you guys are bosses here in Congress. Ever thought, do you need all these reporting requirements?
Elizabeth Field: So I think that is one of the key subtexts to this entire report and review. That’s certainly something that we heard concerns from the department about. We also heard questions on Capitol Hill from congressional staffers about this. I think what will help everyone get a better handle on this issue is what we recommend in our second recommendation, which is to track the data about, you know, how long does it really take to respond to these reporting requirements? How much does it cost? The department has said that it hopes that its new reform effort will reduce costs and save time, but it didn’t say by how much, and it doesn’t have a way to know. So that is our second recommendation. And of
Tom Temin: And of course, there’s no metric. And there can’t ever be a guess, on whether these reports are actually read by members of Congress, or if they react to them in any way.
Elizabeth Field: They’re certainly not. Although with the new system that the department is trying to develop, they will be delivered electronically, which I think should increase the likelihood that they are read. And I will also tell you that when we were doing this review and met with staff from the defense committees, many of them did say that there are some of these reports that they really rely on, and that these reports can inform important policy debates.
Tom Temin: Sure. I was thinking maybe one experiment would be to find the oldest requirement that’s still extant that they have to do every year. And wasn’t there a horror movie where someone was ostensibly writing a novel, but they sat there at the typewriter for years simply typing nonsense lines over and over again, submitting a report of the lazy brown fox jumped over the sleeping dog — 10,000 lines — sent that to Congress to see if anyone notices.
Elizabeth Field: Well, you know, certainly if we had a more transparent system, we would know if that was occurring.
Tom Temin: But you’re not going to try that anyway.
Elizabeth Field: GAO would never do that. We take our reporting very seriously.
Tom Temin: Indeed you do. And looking at your report, it strikes me that there’s advice that almost any agency, especially the big departments that have multiple and ongoing reporting requirements to Congress. Even though this is DoD specific, I would think that if I’m HHS or Commerce or some other big department — DHS — that I could look at this and probably get some wisdom from it to help my own reporting efforts, even though I’m not DoD. Fair to say?
Elizabeth Field: I think that is fair to say. You know, the two recommendations: make sure that you are communicating with and consulting with the stakeholders inside your own agency, and then tracking the data related to how long it takes you to address reporting requirements and how much it’s costing you. That is certainly applicable to really any federal agency.
Tom Temin: Elizabeth Field is director of defense capabilities and management issues at the Government Accountability Office. Thanks so much.
Elizabeth Field: Thank you so much.