Ms. Lisa Hershman, an accomplished former CEO who has been serving in the Department of Defense for over two years, received Senate confirmation by unanimous consent to become the DoD chief management officer shortly before Christmas. At the same time, however, the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act required two studies from the DoD that openly posit eliminating the CMO function altogether.

What gives? The mixed signals coming out of these discordant events underscore the fact that the theory behind the current CMO function (and similar efforts over the past two decades) does not match the reality of the business structure of the DoD. The solution that will ultimately work best for the DoD is one that truly takes a business-based approach to DoD business operations.

The CMO function is the latest in a long-running series of efforts since the early 2000s to reform the business of defense. The essential idea has been to bring the best commercial business practices into DoD business operations through organizational and legislative changes.

While the rationale for these respective initiatives is unassailable, they have struggled in execution. The CMO and its predecessor organizations, for example, have focused on the acquisition or certification of DoD business systems. These efforts, however, have largely devolved into bureaucratic battles over resources and authorities, pitting the business-focused organization against the formidable military departments and the “fourth estate.”

Whatever the outcome, the business-focused organization ends up being seen as weak and ineffective.

Why is that? Having worked for years in and around these respective efforts in both government and industry roles, I have come to the conclusion that these well-meaning initiatives are just the wrong type of solution. This is largely because their respective organizations, often despite strong leadership and empowered by various degrees of legislative authority, have not had the bureaucratic throw-weight to succeed in Pentagon battles with the services and the fourth estate.

The solution to this challenge, however, is not to further tinker with the CMO’s authority or to create a larger or different CMO organization. Part of the solution is to recognize that while the DoD is not a business, it is in many ways a businesslike organization. There are no profit and loss, or P&L, centers in the DoD, but the military departments frankly function in much the same way as a P&L line of business. The services are directly responsible for training and equipping their soldiers, sailors and airmen just as P&L leaders are responsible for delivering products and solutions on time and profitably.

Likewise, fourth estate entities such as the defense agencies and the Office of the Secretary of Defense have direct responsibility over their respective functions. Harnessing the power and authority of these organizations through the training and enabling of good business practices is a much more natural fit for the DoD.

Devolving responsibility in and of itself is not the answer, however. The other part of the solution is accountability. Commercial businesses do not have a CMO function. Instead, well-run businesses are led by strong executives who are responsible and accountable for delivering results to their employees and shareholders. Those that succeed are rewarded, while those that fail are replaced.

The same goes for the DoD.

DoD leadership should focus on establishing business-reform objectives for each major DoD organization, and then holding leaders of these respective organizations accountable to the achievement of measurable business goals. This should be driven by the secretary and the deputy, and enabled by a much smaller CMO function. Secretary Mark Esper appears to be headed in that direction in his recent memo on 2020 DoD reform efforts, which focuses the CMO’s efforts on the fourth estate and makes the services directly responsible “to establish and execute aggressive reform plans.” That is the right approach.

In short, the DoD does not need a management organization to oversee the business of defense; it needs to enable its leaders to utilize business best practices, and then hold these leaders accountable for results.

Jerry McGinn is the executive director of the Center for Government Contracting at George Mason University. He previously served as the senior career official in the Office of Manufacturing and Industrial Base Policy at the U.S. Defense Department.

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