WASHINGTON — Early work by a congressionally mandated budget reform commission has highlighted an “incredible lack of trust and communication” between the U.S. Department of Defense and Congress, according to former Pentagon acquisition chief Ellen Lord.
Lord is a member of the 14-person Commission on Planning, Program, Budgeting and Execution Reform, created by Congress in the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act. The panel is made up of former lawmakers, DoD officials and industry executives who are tasked with recommending improvements to the department’s budget process.
The commission has held a dozen meetings with stakeholders, she said during a Nov. 4 conference hosted by George Mason University and Defense Acquisition University. Those discussions have shed light on concerns around how the department engages with Congress and how it communicates details on the programs it wants to fund.
“There is very little communication,” Lord said. “I think everybody thinks there could be more.”
The Planning, Programming, Budgeting, and Execution, or PPBE, funding mechanism is criticized inside and outside of the Pentagon as too cumbersome and slow. The process requires planners to lock in new programs more than two years before receiving funding, often causing major modernization programs and technology development to lag.
A 2021 report from the Washington, D.C.-based American Enterprise Institute argued for an overhaul of the system, saying it is impeding the department’s efforts to outpace China technologically.
The commission has been meeting quietly for more than six months and is on track to deliver an interim report on its findings in August 2023, with a final report due in March 2024. Lord said topics have included reprogramming thresholds and how to make special acquisition authorities more accessible. It recently met with Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Heidi Shyu and Pentagon acquisition executive Bill LaPlante to hear about the “art of the possible” when it comes to acquisition reform and technology development.
Lord said there has been “a great diversity of opinions” about those topics, noting that moving forward, the commission wants feedback from the defense enterprise about the successes and shortcomings of the budget process.
“What we need are examples of where PPBE was used was used in a way that accelerated capability being fielded downrange,” she said. “Just as importantly, we need very concrete examples of where things went sideways. Because without actual scenarios, it is hard to have the proof point to really back up recommended changes or to sort of foot stomp what’s right that we need to do more of.”