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Commentary: DoD's 'Buckets' Problem

Nov. 18, 2013 - 02:58PM   |  
By Michael Cadenazzi and Chris Daehnick   |   Comments
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The US Defense Department needs better buckets. Analytical buckets. Whether budget planning, development of capabilities-based strategies or defense of investment priorities, the linchpin is assigning data to logical bins, buckets or categories that are consistent and easy to understand.

The DoD implements taxonomies to understand and articulate requirements, spending priorities and programs. Whether describing the threat (asymmetrical, conventional, terrorist), the domain (cyber, space, undersea) or the response (kinetic, diplomatic, intelligence, military economics, Air-Sea Battle), taxonomy categories help manage the defense portfolio.

So what is DoD’s problem? Simply put, there are too many buckets, too often created for specific, biased purposes, and they are more likely to atrophy than be built upon and refined.

Leadership has the right to demand information in a certain way for its unique problems. But everyone’s unique problems are so interconnected that the only way to make sense of it comprehensively is to apply common frameworks. And since forcing it is unrealistic, the services and DoD need incentives to make choices that enable apples-to-apples comparisons across service and defense-wide portfolios.

For instance, the Navy will use future naval capabilities for gauging science and technologies priorities. The Air Force might articulate them as core technical competencies while the Army used Army technical objectives and then shifted to objectives and must-do’s.

Each is covering the same ground of investments in budget activity, a mix of science and prototypes and systems, yet each will describe them differently. The Army might do materials and lump it under armor; the Navy will call it survivability and the Air Force will call it force protection or structures. And the Office of the Secretary of Defense might call it something else.

The department must balance investments across all those tools and purposes. The lack of common taxonomies inhibits the ability to look at all materials investments and gauge portfolio spending priorities.

It is easy to come up with a new taxonomy. Take a problem. Look at the data. Define a set of categories. Done.

That’s why DoD suffers. The amount, variety and mix of DoD analysis is vast. And the mix of data categories is equally so because it is far easier to create new data buckets than to conform to and apply an existing framework.

Creating a new taxonomy also allows the analyst to frame the analysis in ways most favorable to his question. Most DoD leaders believe their problems are inherently unique, or their existing frameworks somehow flawed, further driving specialization.

While that might make the immediate analysis easier or clearer, it makes the study and its results harder to compare to past, present and future studies.

A few years ago, the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering created the “Magnificent 7” list of science and technology priorities. It took two years to circulate and went into effect for a budget cycle before being abandoned.

Was that list better than the multimillion-dollar Defense Science Board Tech Vectors for the 21st Century? Or the Navy’s Future Naval Capabilities? Or the 100+ Defense Technology Areas? Or the Service Laboratory core technical competencies?

When you cannot compare Army to Navy to Air Force portfolios without the creation of a one-time, stand-alone analytical framework, you have created unnecessary work and wasted money.

Another less tangible, but perhaps more serious, effect is on strategic thinking. If your analytical frame of references changes with each question, then frames of reference lose their meaning. Every decision is made in its own strategic context, which is to say that there may as well not be a strategic context at all.

Does DoD need a taxonomy “czar”? No. But leaders need to accept standard taxonomies that will not reflect their every need but benefit the broader defense enterprise. It requires leaders to make the hard choice to use one of the many taxonomies that DoD uses. And DoD needs to own those taxonomies.

A petulant argument against this says, “you cannot boil everything down to five or 10 lists.” No, you cannot. But you could boil it down to 100. Or maybe 1,000.

This is well below the defense secretary’s pay grade, and if he needs a third party to enforce staff cuts he is unlikely to possess the capacity to achieve this. We argue, though, that this is exactly the foray into the sausage-making guts of the machine that changes how the defense analytic system generates horse trades of capacity and capability across a $600 billion portfolio. Absent a change, the market; White House; Congress; and DoD leaders, managers and analysts will continue to invent their own buckets.

The defense secretary makes his and all of our lives worse — and more costly — by maintaining the status quo.

Michael Cadenazzi is a former US Navy officer and founder/CEO of VisualDoD, providers of defense budget and market analysis software, and Chris Daehnick is a retired US Air Force officer and COO of VisualDoD.

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