GAO: Defense Department Needs to Further Refine and Formalize Its Reform Efforts

The Department of Defense’s approach to transforming its business operations is on the Government Accountability Office’s High Risk List. GAO found weaknesses that hurt efficiency and effectiveness and render DOD’s operations vulnerable to waste, fraud, and abuse.

GAO examined 3 recent DOD reform efforts, including its work to measure savings from these efforts. DOD reported $37 billion in savings. GAO found these savings were largely reflected in DOD’s budget materials, but GAO could not determine the quality of the analysis supporting them due to a lack of information about economic assumptions and other factors.

The Department of Defense (DOD) has made progress in establishing valid and reliable cost baselines for its enterprise business operations and has additional efforts ongoing. DOD’s January 2020 report responding to section 921 of the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year (FY) 2019 addressed most of the key requirements from that section but also had some limitations, which DOD acknowledged. For example, the baselines included only labor and information technology costs because DOD’s financial data do not attribute costs to other specific activities required under section 921. However, DOD officials told GAO they have developed and are continuing to refine baselines for all of the department’s enterprise business operations, such as financial and human resource management, to enable DOD to better track the resources devoted to these operations and the progress of reform. While still in progress, this effort shows promise in addressing the weaknesses in DOD’s section 921 report and in meeting the need for consistent baselines for DOD’s reform efforts that GAO has previously identified.

GAO found that DOD’s reported savings of $37 billion from its reform efforts and a Defense-Wide Review to better align resources are largely reflected in its budget materials; however, the savings were not always well documented or consistent with the department’s definitions of reform. Specifically:

  • DOD had limited information on the analysis underlying its savings estimates, including (1) economic assumptions, (2) alternative options, and (3) any costs of taking the actions to realize savings, such as opportunity costs. Therefore, GAO was unable to determine the quality of the analysis that led to DOD’s savings decisions.
  • Further, some of the cost savings initiatives were not clearly aligned with DOD’s definitions of reform, and thus DOD may have overstated savings that came from its reform efforts rather than other sources of savings, like cost avoidance. For example, one initiative was based on the delay of military construction projects. According to DOD officials, this was done to fund higher priorities. But if a delayed project is still planned, the costs will likely be realized in a future year.

Without processes to standardize development and documentation of savings and to consistently identify reform savings based on reform definitions, decision makers may lack reliable information on DOD’s estimated reform savings.

In coordinating its reform efforts, DOD has generally followed leading practices for collaboration, but there is a risk that this collaboration may not be sustained in light of any organizational changes that Congress or DOD may make. This risk is increased because the Office of the Chief Management Officer (OCMO) and other offices have not formalized and institutionalized these efforts through written policies or agreements. Without written policies or formal agreements that define how organizations should collaborate with regard to DOD’s reform and efficiency efforts, current progress may be lost, and future coordination efforts may be hindered.

GAO is making three recommendations—specifically, that DOD establish formal processes to standardize development and documentation of cost savings; ensure that reported savings are consistent with the department’s definition of reform; and formalize policies or agreements on its reform efforts. DOD concurred with GAO’s recommendations.

Read more at GAO

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