Sequestration’s lessons prove elusive at DoD

In a new report, the Government Accountability Office warns the Defense Department to record the hardships of the 2013 budget cuts known as sequestration before they return.

The 126-page report, posted online Wednesday, can be summed up with Edmund Burke’s admonishment, “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.”

Some parts of the massive Defense Department have tried to document the impact sequestration had on their missions, but those efforts need to spread far and wide, the report said

“DoD is missing an opportunity to gain valuable institutional knowledge that would help facilitate future decision making about budgetary reductions should sequestration occur again,” it said.

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Components’ attempts to quantify the impact of sequestration have focused on civilian furloughs, for the most part. Across the department, 626,404 employees were forced to take at least one day off without pay. The Navy found that it lost nearly half of the savings it got from furloughing employees with Fleet Forces Command and the Pacific Fleet. The furloughs led to lower productivity and costly schedule delays.

The service has said it would act differently the next time because of its findings.

GAO lauded the Navy’s effort as a “positive step,” but cautioned that it, and similar initiatives, did not go far enough.

“The information produced through these and other DoD efforts is limited in scope and purpose, are still ongoing, and have not been widely shared across the service,” the reports said. “As a result, it remains unclear whether or how applicable either of the services’ lessons learned will be in informing their future budgetary planning and decision making.”

Officials from other parts of DoD had told the auditors that they were not aware of these reviews.

DoD cut $37.2 billion in just seven months in 2013

The fiscal year was halfway over when sequestration went into effect in March 2013. Overall, the Defense Department tried to protect funding for wartime operations and base support services that it considered essential. Instead, components chose to curtail travel, training and administrative expenses; freeze hiring and fire temporary workers; and cancel or delay maintenance of equipment and buildings.

Although the services received central guidance from both the White House and the Defense Department, they had latitude in deciding which parts of their budgets to slash. The results were uneven, GAO said.

“For a given case study area, some components identified little to no effect overall, while other components reported a combination of effects related to costs and spending, time frames or cancelled activities, and to the availability of forces,” it said.

The Defense Department has not required its components to assess the impact of their decisions, GAO noted. Indeed, officials in the comptroller’s office recently told the auditors that they planned to do so only within their financial management systems to comply with White House guidance.

“They consider each sequestration event to be unique and said that they would issue subsequent guidance to the components on how to implement any future instances of sequestration at that time, should it occur,” GAO said in the report.

Will DoD be ready for sequestration in fiscal 2016?

While agencies got a reprieve from sequestration in fiscal 2014 and fiscal 2015, it is slated to return in fiscal 2016, unless Congress passes a law that says otherwise.

The same officials who told GAO that they viewed each sequestration in isolation admitted that consolidating information about the 2013 cuts could be helpful in planning for the next go-round.

Upon GAO’s recommendation, the Defense Department comptroller and the military services plan to create a repository of lessons learned and best practices from across the enterprise. DoD officials will be able to access it through a new Web portal, scheduled to launch by December.

The department does not need to start from scratch, GAO said. It recommended that DoD leverage existing information-sharing tools, such as the Joint Staff’s Lessons Learned Information System and quarterly Joint Lessons Learned Program reviews.

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