Insight by Decision Lens

Data visibility, granularity, accuracy are keys to better PPBE

That famous military aphorism – no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy – could also apply to Defense Department budget planning. The process, formally known as Planning, Programming, Budgeting and Executing, or PPBE, takes place over a five year horizon. And anything can happen to affect plans.

Especially in times of great technological change and the transformation of the military across a number of domains, long term planning and budgeting become particularly problematic.

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Short Range and Long Range Planning in DoD

“You really have to go from this highest level visibility of ‘what does this all look like on a big picture basis’ to how do you execute that down within the year. And that increasing level of granularity requires an increased level of transparency of the data.” – Kevin Connor, chief product officer, Decision Lens

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Forming Budget Requests

“We're really trying to change the game on and crack the code on, how do you have better real time information, how well you can see if the plan you intended, and the vision you aspire toward, is being realized.” – Kevin Connor, chief product officer, Decision Lens

That famous military aphorism – no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy – could also apply to Defense Department budget planning. The process, formally known as Planning, Programming, Budgeting and Executing, or PPBE, takes place over a five year horizon. And anything can happen to affect plans.

Especially in times of great technological change and the transformation of the military across a number of domains, long term planning and budgeting become particularly problematic.

“The modern world as it is, has really brought us into a phase where that long term plan is an ever-evolving series of short, iterative plans,” said Kevin Connor, the chief product officer at Decision Lens. “What we’ve tried to do is build a solution that helps people understand that there’s a reconciliation of the longer term view and vision, with the shorter term decisions required to stay on track and adapt to changing conditions.”

The longer term and short term can clash, Connor noted, when two conditions occur simultaneously, as they often do. One is the need to sustain a legacy program or platform that is central to a mission. The other is the emergence of an innovation that’s desired by an operating unit, but budgeting for production might not ordinarily be available for years.

“It’s a Rubik’s cube times ten,” Connor said. “You have this challenge of having to reconcile existing assets that you have to maintain and have to be deployable in the interim, while you’re developing new technologies and new assets to deploy. So how do you transition and train and do all the things that are necessary to move that in concert? “It’s really a difficult puzzle.”

One key to understanding all of the moving parts would be a more accessible and transparent view into the relevant data. That’s often a challenge for Defense Department components, Connor said. Because data is scattered across systems and in a variety of formats, and multiple sources might not always match for the same program. The result can be a sort of fire drill data call to try and understand a question.

“There’s a lot of disparate pieces, some of the data is not standardized, some of the sources are not consistent, and trying to piece that together is really a challenge,” Connor said. The challenge is compounded by “color of money” restrictions. For example, money designated for research and development is not available for operations and maintenance or volume procurement.

But having clear, unrestricted views into money of all colors can help planners better understand what they have, how to deploy it more efficiently, and provide clues to future allocations. Connor likened views into data to drilling down in an online map, in which more and more detail becomes apparent.

Moreover, planners can, in a high visibility environment, obtain a clearer view of whether projects start on time and meet objectives.

“Ultimately, you have to lay out that plan for spending that money by year,” Connor said. “In each year you’re doing that, be able to have visibility into whether these projects getting started on time. Are they achieving their objectives and milestones? Are they using the money as desired, or do they have large spend overruns?”

Reprogramming made easier

That visibility can save dollars for more effective projects and help justify the inevitable reprogramming requests to Congress, Connor said.

“So you really have to go from this highest level of visibility, of what does this all look like on a big picture basis, to how do you execute that down within the year,” he said. He added that the more granular the views into data, the more accurately planners can map money colors with desired spending allocations.

All of this requires doing some work on the data itself. DoD financial information, Connor noted, tends to pool in large spreadsheets. But much of it also exists in widely differing formats, not all of which are structures or machine readable for PPBE purposes – presentations, written documents, PDFs, for example.

“How do we normalize all of this, make sense of it, and to be able to see what it says and use it to inform decisions?” Connor said. “That can be incredibly challenging.” He said the Decision Lens solution is built to collect data elements from all of these sources, normalize the reconcile them, and map them according to the money colors.

“As long as we can map that seemingly unstructured data to that structure, then we can give you a very common way of looking at it with purpose-built analytics,” Connor said. The goal is greater value from data and greater ability to control costs and manage risks across the asset classes. He added that the tool has the capability of keep the rolled-up picture accurate day-to-day as new data comes in.

With accurate, comprehensive and up-to-date data, coupled with analytic tools, Connor said, planning becomes less of a once-a-year exercise and more of a continuous process.

“Planning has always been thought of as sort of this annual event,” he said. “We’re really trying to move organizations that, despite those structural and procedural elements, to be thinking about the plan itself, and a bit more dynamically, and with more adaptability.”

  • Kevin Connor

    Chief Product Officer, Decision Lens

  • Tom Temin

    Host, The Federal Drive, Federal News Network