Congress continues to express concerns about weapon system cost growth and is considering multiple acquisition reform proposals for the National Defense Authorization Act.
One recent congressional proposal would hold program managers accountable via a "performance agreement" for key parameters that must be met, and impacting them financially or professionally if the parameters aren't met. For all intents and purposes, this is a performance contract.
While on the surface personal accountability seems like a sound approach, accountability has a basic tenet: the ability to control the outcome. For program managers, there are few levers to control program outcomes, and as a result, personal accountability would be very difficult to effectively implement.
Across a program's life cycle, many elements affect program execution, including:
Program priority: The higher priority a program, the more resources dedicated to its success. Political and real-world situations can change program priority year-to-year, with both intended and unintended consequences. The service, Office of the Secretary of Defense and national authorities determine program priority.
Resources: Program managers request the resources they will need to successfully implement the program years in advance. This is reviewed and modified multiple times at the command, service, OSD, executive and congressional levels.
Predecessor actions: Decisions that were made by prior program managers, acquisition officials, service chiefs and secretaries, as well as presidents and lawmakers, can set or eliminate options and courses of actions for the program manager. Most of these individuals will be in their positions for a fraction of the program's developmental and operational life and thereby do not have to respond to the consequences of their decisions.
Requirements: Program requirements are typically issued to the program manager through a process known as the Joint Capabilities Integration Development System. A service develops the requirements, which are then signed by its chief and approved by a requirements council at the Joint Staff. These national, department and service needs are subject to change due to turnover in administrations, political mores, emerging threats, fiscal realities or any combination of the above.
Staffing: A program manager's team is usually inherited and subject to the policies, priorities and desires of organizations that have no responsibility for program execution.
For a "performance agreement" to be an equitable contract between a program manager and another party, these realities must be considered and accounted for in the agreement.
This brings us to the next question: Who is the other party to this contract? The answer to this question is not straightforward. Most candidates who initially come to mind (program executive officer, service acquisition executive, defense acquisition executive, service chief/secretary) are responsible for, or can influence, the above factors for reasons other than program execution, while the program manager would still remain accountable. Ideally, the other party of the performance agreement contract would be outside the program manager's chains of command and independent of the acquisition process.
Finally, in a carrot vs. stick equation, the current discussion of accountability concepts has focused on the "stick" — what happens if the program manager fails to meet the performance agreement. Equally important in achieving better program outcomes is the "carrot": What inducements are there for success?
If the program manager faces a financial penalty or demotion for failure, it seems equitable to offer a bonus or promotion for success. However, given the military and civilian personnel and pay systems, it's questionable whether either incentive option is feasible. And if not, does this "stick" approach simply steer the best and brightest away from program management?
Bottom line: While the concept of a performance agreement to hold program managers accountable sounds logical on the surface, a more effective approach to improving acquisition outcomes might be two-pronged. This would include truly reforming acquisition by slicing through the Gordian knot of conflicting laws, policies, processes and duplicative oversight to create a straightforward, consistent rule set.
Next, provide the program manager the resources, tools and authority to navigate the defense acquisition labyrinth.
Blickstein is a senior engineer at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Rand Corp. He is a retired member of the Senior Executive Service who served in the Navy and OSD with financial responsibilities. Shelton is a retired Air Force colonel and Rand senior engineer. His research has covered such topics as accelerating Air Force acquisition programs and the reorganization of Air Force Materiel Command.