Defense Management Institute looks to centralize unwieldy DoD management

After a years of trying different ways to centralize Pentagon management, DoD kicks off Defense Management Institute.

Managing 3 million people worldwide, 33 different agencies and arguably the world’s most complicated acquisition program requires a correspondingly sophisticated management system, and the Defense Department keeps trying to up its game. The Defense Management Institute (DMI), unveiled on Jan. 31, marking a new effort at updating and improving management practices.

The DMI’s mission includes developing a pool of experts from federally-funded research and development centers to include think tanks, academia, and the private sector. The non-profit organization also has a mandate to conduct research on management issues and build a library of resources centered on defense management issues.

“The management challenges we face at DoD are multifaceted and generational. How will we attract the talent we need to maintain in a competitive workplace? How do we gather quality data so leaders can make sound, well-informed decisions? What systems can get information to the right decision-makers in a timely and effective manner?” asked Kathleen Hicks, deputy Secretary of Defense, in a discussion at the DMI kickoff event.

The institute represents the culmination of years of trying to create an overall management leadership template at DoD. The department created the position of chief management officer in 2018 after the idea had been kicked around through multiple administrations. The Government Accountability Office suggested the position in 2005 as a measure to reform Pentagon management and address waste, fraud and abuse. After the position finally became a reality, it only lasted until 2021, when Congress abolished it.

“Congress’ disillusionment with the chief management officer, which took place just before I came back to the Pentagon in 2021, meant that we had to look afresh at how we’re organized for business operations,” Hicks said.

The decision to eliminate the CMO office came after a study by the Defense Business Board (DBB) that concluded the position wasn’t effective.

“We recommended that it be de-established, we recommended that the deputy basically reinstate themselves as the enhanced chief operating officer, put the performance improvement organization under the deputy, beef up comptroller and recreate the director of administration and management,” said Maj. Gen. Arnold Punaro, USMC (Ret.), who served on the DBB when it recommended ending the position.

Punaro said the position was doomed from the start because it was created outside the normal decision making process of the Pentagon, and it was never accepted by the agencies or the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“It wasn’t accepted by the military departments. The undersecretaries in each of the military departments are tasked with being their military departments’ chief operating officer. It was never allowed to succeed, to be quite honest. It was not staffed up properly. If the position was vacant, many times they had acting people in there,” Punaro said.

The DMI seeks to centralize business management and continue research and training into best practices. It will be run as part of Institute for Defense Analyses, a non-profit research center in Alexandria, Virginia that partners with DoD on several research centers.

Beth McGrath, former Defense Department deputy chief management officer, said she expects this new approach to improve the department’s management performance.

“You’ve got really the entire ecosystem there through one channel, I think it will be somewhat of a superpower of the institute. I actually do think having a more centralized focus on management with access to the entire ecosystem will really benefit the department,” said McGrath.

Looking to specifics, McGrath offered several areas where she thought DMI could make an impact on DoD management. Fixing the IT environment should be a priority. She said it needed to be standardized and simplified. The DBB recently conducted a survey showing widespread dissatisfaction with IT user experience at the Pentagon.

Other areas McGrath listed as priorities included data management, and linking data to optimizing performance. She said human resources works too slowly and needs to be reformed.

“I think the federal government to include the Defense Department is missing out on a lot of talented people who I think want to contribute, make an impact to both the security of our nation and other things across federal government. But the system is just too cumbersome and slow,” she said.


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