The Defense Department’s short-lived chief management officer (CMO) position didn’t work because the Pentagon’s senior leadership never wanted it, and the position was foisted on an unwilling DoD by Congress, according to a new report analyzing what went wrong with the position.
The report, released Monday by the Defense Management Institute, a DoD-affiliated nonprofit think tank, found the position lacked well-defined boundaries and never got the full support of senior leadership.
“There’s nothing to suggest that the department was interested in a chief management officer. In fact, it received objections from the highest levels of the department. And likewise, there was resistance from other echelons across the department,” Jason Dechant, study lead for the report and research staff member at the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) told Federal News Network. IDA is the parent organization for DMI.
The report offered a series of findings related to the CMO position and lessons learned for future defense management teams. It drew a stark portrait of resistance to the new position and the programs the various leaders who held the role tried to promote.
“Enterprise-wide management, business reform and efficiency have no natural constituencies or advocates in the department outside of senior leadership,” the report stated. It said creating efficiencies at DoD was the domain of senior leaders. In a culture where cost cuts or reforms created a sense of “winners” and “losers,” senior leaders often had to adjudicate between competing claims about those trade-offs.
The short life of the CMO position
A predecessor version of the position, called the deputy chief management officer (DCMO), was established in the fiscal 2008 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) as an assistant for business management to the deputy secretary of Defense. After ten years, Congress elevated the position to CMO as the third highest-ranking Defense official. Three years later, Congress repealed the position in the 2021 NDAA after the Defense Business Board released a study concluding it was ineffective.
This week’s report found one of the problems with the position was both Congress and the Office of the Secretary of Defense frequently changed the mission of the CMO. Changes in leadership at the Pentagon and in Congress brought new expectations for the role and frequently included new authorities or organizational changes that altered the responsibility and scope of the office.
“There was a turf war. There were personalities at play as well — certainly different deputies and secretaries of Defense had different views of what the role of the DCMO was. And so that’s a little bit more than your traditional turf war. That’s a key relationship that needs to exist between the deputy [secretary of Defense] or later the CMO and the deputy that needs to be put in place,” Dechant said.
The Senate 2024 NDAA calls for reinstatement of the CMO. A statement of administration policy the White House published July 27 disagrees. If another attempt were made to create a CMO, the DMI report lists lessons learned from past failures. Among those lessons — less meddling from Congress.
“The continuing Congressionally-imposed changes to the DCMO increased resistance to the new organization, making a difficult job even more so,” stated the report.
Dechant said the position had a better chance of success as a DCMO than as a CMO. The original DCMO had a limited budget and staff. When the position evolved to CMO, it had the same limitations but more responsibilities. The report also said the position was so short-lived it never had a chance to succeed, and suffered from frequent turnover and vacancies.
“One of the things we tried to talk about in the report is, could the future have been different had the DCMO remained rather than being elevated to the CMO? We provide some accounting that it would have had a different future had it remained the [DCMO],” Dechant said.
Even with no one holding a chief management title, Dechant said DoD is putting in some changes designed to improve management practices.
“Organizationally, even without the appointment of a senior official, one could imagine the department taking steps to strengthen management. It’s already doing so in some of the advances that are being made inside of DoD with the establishment of a performance improvement officer and the new organizations that are beginning to grow up around performance improvements,” DeChant said. “I think the department is taking some steps so that it can mature into an organization that helps to address many of the problems that the CMO was originally created to solve.”