Fiscal constraints are forcing staff cuts across government. For example, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recently received the results from a 30-day review on how to cut his staff by 20 percent.
If he is like his predecessors, Hagel probably believes a smaller Pentagon also would be more productive.
Former secretaries and deputy secretaries of defense reportedly favor large Pentagon staff cuts, believing the bureaucracy has grown so large it is dysfunctional. Many studies agree, arguing the Pentagon bogs down “in protracted coordination processes” and is prone to “excessive bureaucratic friction” and “excessive micro-management.”
All leaders want to emerge from downsizing with more effective organizations, but smaller staffs are not necessarily more productive. Painful personnel cuts leave little time to consider factors that impede performance.
In the case of the Pentagon, “duplication of headquarters staffs” is believed to be “a major source of excessive bureaucratic friction.” In reality, the opposite is true: the inability to collaborate stimulates duplicative staff elements.
Like most government leaders, secretaries of defense confront complex, multidisciplinary problems that demand multifunctional solutions. Cybersecurity, future force development, intervention in Syria and other pressing challenges require collaboration among diverse functional experts. That is why the Pentagon spends prodigious amounts of time coordinating work.
One 2005 Joint Staff review identified more than 860 standing groups its personnel attended. Virtually all of these groups met to share information — not make decisions — and did even that poorly. Staffs hoard information so they are perceived as more valuable.
In such circumstances, undersecretaries are more likely to add functional experts to their staffs rather than rely on other offices. Thus staffs grow despite the best efforts of secretaries to trim them back.
Government needs some form of “horizontal” organization to improve collaboration and remove incentives for duplicating staffs.
The private sector increasingly assigns complex problems to horizontal structures organized around cross-functional processes rather than vertical functions. They work well only if the organization has a collaborative culture, which is possible only if senior leaders insist upon it.
Thus, Hagel would have to be “all in” for this approach to work in the Pentagon.
Hagel could minimize resistance to collaboration by beta testing a small number of empowered task forces that cut across his undersecretaries’ fiefdoms.
To succeed, he would have to insist on a full commitment to cross-organizational collaboration. He would have to give the groups presumptive authority to act (subject to his veto), and make them accountable for results so they would not degenerate into mere advisory groups that hedge their bets.
To see how challenging this is, Hagel could consult the Marine Corps’ prior attempt to implement horizontal organization at the headquarters level.
Anyone who has worked on the secretary of defense’s staff knows the workload is crushing. With a 20 percent staff cut looming, it’s time to get serious about working smarter instead of harder.
The secretary must understand that if his staff is cut by 20 percent, he will get 20 percent less of what he does not want — narrow, stove-piped advice — but not one iota more of what he truly needs, which is well-integrated, multifunctional problem assessments and solutions.
Put differently, if the secretary wants a staff that is less expensive and more effective, he must re-engineer it for collaboration.
That means taking responsibility for his staff’s productivity and moving it toward 21st century organizational practices.
By Christopher J. Lamb, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Washington.