WASHINGTON — The Pentagon’s chief management officer has pushed back on congressional plans to eliminate her office, warning that doing so now guarantees the failure of reform efforts at the department.

In an exclusive interview with Defense News, Lisa Hershman, who was confirmed as the CMO in December 2019, stressed that any serious reform effort at the Defense Department requires a full-time official focused on it, one with high-level authority to make choices and force change.

“Here’s the thing: Congress has a choice to make,” Hershman said Tuesday. “It’s really about how serious Congress is about reform. And I mean real reform, where we’re moving not only big numbers, but making fundamental changes in how we do business.”

“It’s hard. It’s uncomfortable. It’s difficult for people,” she added. “So, they have a choice.”

Her comments come a week after the House Armed Services Committee agreed with its Senate counterpart that the CMO’s office is not working as intended and should be eliminated. Both committees put such language in their versions of the National Defense Authorization Act, although with different details.

The Senate Armed Service Committee’s version mandates the CMO’s office be broken up no later than Sept. 30, 2022, with the majority of the authorities going to the deputy defense secretary, who would then create a new performance improvement officer role that reports up to the deputy defense secretary.

In contrast, the HASC version gives the defense secretary the decision-making power on where to transfer the CMO’s authorities, so long as that person was not previously the chief management officer. That change would have to happen within 30 days of the NDAA’s enactment.

Both versions need to be reconciled between each other, as well as approved by the full Congress. But it is unlikely that anyone outside the defense committees will raise enough of a fight to ensure the CMO’s office emerges intact following the NDAA’s eventual passage.

Asked if there were any positives in the proposed changes, Hershman was direct, saying: “I don’t. To be very blunt, no, I don’t see anything positive. The fact that they are reducing the role, regardless of which version, to a lower or lesser level” means that “this is a guaranteed failure.”

In terms of accomplishments — included in a fact sheet from Hershman’s office — the CMO team claims it found savings totaling $22.3 billion between fiscal 2018 and the end of fiscal 2021, although the fiscal 2020 and 2021 figures have yet to be validated.

In addition, the office says it identified $6.5 billion in potential savings for the various “fourth estate” offices, for whose budget Hershman was placed in charge of by Defense Secretary Mark Esper earlier this year.

Those figures are “a game changer,” she said. “I just I wish everyone saw it that way, and realized what’s been accomplished and the outcome and how staggering they are.”

The importance of position

Fundamentally, Hershman argued, an undersecretary of defense-level appointee solely focused on the reform effort is required to get things done. (She sounded particularly cool to putting the job under the deputy defense secretary, which she called an “already overly burdened portfolio.”)

As proof, she points to the fact that since 2010, the Pentagon had only a deputy CMO role, which would live around the level mentioned in SASC’s NDAA plan.

That deputy role was unable to achieve the level of reform needed, in large part because of the lack of authority to drive real changes inside the building — an issue explicitly acknowledged by Congress when it created the CMO’s office and officially put its leadership third in command of the department four year ago.

“I want to make sure this is not about me. Look, I’m an appointee, right? I knew that my time was going to be limited regardless,” Hershman said. “But this is about the importance of getting that structure right. And the importance of having that level right. And the importance of making sure it is properly resourced and the possibilities of what can be accomplished.”

Hershman also argued that pulling the plug on her office now — less than three years after it was officially stood up, the first year of which was obscured by a chaotic leadership situation — is unfair, as reform efforts require more time to find their footing within an organization.

She also described a Defense Business Board report from May — which recommended abolishing the CMO’s office — as “flawed” for a number of reasons, including a requirement to weigh evenly the smaller reform offices going back to 2008 and the current elevated CMO office. That report, which was requested by Congress, appears to be central in the push to eliminate the office.

The CMO declined to speculate on why many lawmakers who backed the creation of the CMO’s office in 2016, including Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas., who at the time was the HASC chairman, now oppose the office’s continued existence. She did note that SASC Chairman Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., has “actually never spoken to me about this.”

Thornberry, who authored the amendment doing away with the CMO office, recently told reporters: “I have come to the conclusion that Congress is largely responsible for making this an impossible job, and we need to figure out something different.”

Hershman disagrees that the job is impossible, even if she acknowledges that some changes could be made to the office. “Do I think [we need] more time? Yes. Do I think it bears some review? Sure I do,” she said, adding that it would be helpful to have the Government Accountability Office add the CMO to its regular high-risk review series.

Ultimately, “this is really up to Congress. They’ve asked me to deliver results. I’ve delivered them results,” she said.

“We can’t do it with one arm tied behind our back. They got the structure right. They need to instantiate it. And the rest is really up to them.”

Updated 7/9/20 at 4:25 PM EST to clarify that both fiscal year 2020 and 2021 figures from the CMO’s office have yet to be validated.

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

More In Pentagon