Within the fiscal 2022 defense budget request, the Department of Defense has invested in the next generation of leading emerging technologies and capabilities. Ironically, at the same time, the way in which the funding of these new capabilities is organized is entirely outdated. As a pleasant surprise, however, the FY22 National Defense Authorization Act, which had its House Armed Services Committee markup hearing earlier this month, requires the DoD to provide reports on how to improve defense budget-related materials.
While improvements to budget data materials don’t earn the award for sexiest line in the NDAA, it was a pleasant surprise to see this issue garner some attention. Although we’ve become accustomed to traversing the treasure trove of budget data, improvements to the materials are long overdue — not only to make the lives of budget analysts easier, but to ensure greater transparency and oversight, thus helping ensure resources align to strategy.
Each year, the department releases budget justification documents, which consist of essential budget data, in the form of thousands of PDF pages and several Excel files across multiple websites. The format of these materials has not changed for roughly 20 years.
The first major issue with the presentation of defense budget data is that it’s scattered. Data is dispersed across PDFs and Excel files, making it difficult to accurately and comprehensively cover the financial tracks of an entire program. Moreover, the sorting and tagging functions within the materials are rudimentary at best.
Second, while possible, the budget data is difficult to compare across time. Not only is it challenging to extract the right numbers to view a program’s funding over the course of a Future Years Defense Program, but deflators and other economic indicators are not integrated. Instead, the formulas live in separate materials called green books. This impedes comprehensive oversight of major investments because it takes time and know-how to accurately pull the data.
While recognizing that budget data will always be dense and complex given the sheer quantity of the DoD’s programs and funding, Congress, working with the DoD, needs to modernize the way in which the data is displayed.
A realistic improvement that Congress and the department could pursue is expanding the Extensible Markup Language, or XML, feature (introduced to the DoD between 2010 and 2011) to all of the DoD’s programs.
With an XML feature, an analyst can download budget data documents and leverage the XML data structure, which extracts, groups and organizes the data. The research, development, test, evaluation and procurement programs are the only DoD budgets that have this capability. While a start, these programs comprise less than 50 percent of the budget. By extending this underleveraged capability to the rest of the DoD’s budget programs, there is potential for greater accessibility and transparency across the entire defense budget.
While the department may not have the incentive to organize, sort or tag budget data materials using the XML feature, industry partners have the capacity and will to do so.
In an ideal world, the DoD would adopt an entirely different (and better) platform that could clean up the presentation of budget data materials and allow for more interactive sorting and tagging features so that analysts could search investments by program, capability or associated concept. The difficulty, however, to proposing, let alone instituting, any changes to budget data materials is simple: There is little appetite in the department to improve data accessibility or transparency.
Although the DoD has pursued efforts in the past, such as introducing the 2020 DoD Data Strategy, initiatives like these tend to lose steam during transitions between administrations. Congress has also pushed the DoD to update budget data, but Congress has largely failed to follow up with funding or resources to support the effort. Moreover, in some instances, Congress may even wish to avoid greater accessibility and potential scrutiny over the budget data materials as well.
Ultimately, as technology advances, Congress and the DoD need to not only focus investments on capabilities, but also on DoD processes and organizational culture. Modernizing and standardizing the presentation of defense budget data is long overdue. It’s Congress’ responsibility to push the DoD to make these improvements, as lawmakers owe the very taxpayers that elect them greater oversight of how resources are aligning to strategy.
Jennie Matuschak is a research assistant with the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security.