Friday, March 20, 2020

Peter Levine's "Defense Management Reform"

Peter Levine is a senior fellow at the Institute for Defense Analyses and a former Senate staffer. He has served as the Deputy Chief Management Officer of the Department of Defense—the senior Pentagon official responsible for defense management reform.

Levine applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Defense Management Reform: How to Make the Pentagon Work Better and Cost Less, and reported the following:
Page 99 begins a description of how published “horror stories” about defense acquisition drove reformers in Congress and the Pentagon in unhelpful directions in the 1980s. A quote from a 1981 article on the acquisition of C-5 aircraft captures the spirit of the time, saying: “If the Edsel had been built to military specifications, it probably would be with us today; generals would be photographed with it, contractors would be promising third-generation, rocket-assisted, amphibious Edsels, and congressmen from the contractors’ districts would be warning of an Edsel gap.” As this narrative built through the decade, the Pentagon “was left in a protective crouch, trying to fend off unneeded, unwanted, and – in many cases – counterproductive reform proposals.”

This page captures one of the key take-aways of the book: public concerns and press attention are a vital catalyst for reform initiatives, but do not always drive reform in a positive direction. In this case, the government focused so much attention on “spare parts scandals” – $436 hammers, $649 toilet seats and the like – that it neglected needed reforms for billion dollar expenditures on major weapon systems. By the late 1980s, the Department of Defense had hired almost 6,000 new personnel to handle the added spare parts workload at a cost of close to half a billion dollars a year. Spare parts prices leveled off for a few years, but the trend was not enduring – and the prices of big ticket items continued to skyrocket. As the conclusion to the section explains, dedicating disproportionate resources to a narrow set of initiatives may hurt more than it helps if it means neglecting other, more important causes.

Of course, the book discusses other time periods, examines other case studies, and includes other key take-aways. For example, would-be reformers who fail to understand the existing system and how it works may unwittingly make management problems worse; one-size-fits-all approaches rarely work in an enterprise as large and complex as the Department of Defense; bipartisan management reform efforts are more likely to last than narrow partisan victories; without a strong executive branch partner to implement it, reform legislation will not bring about lasting change; and leaders who try to take on too much often end up accomplishing nothing.

Page 99 gives an accurate feel for the quality of writing and the analytic approach of the book, but no single-page snapshot can capture the tangled history of defense management reform or provide a full recipe for future success.
Learn more about Defense Management Reform at the Stanford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue