WASHINGTON — With the Pentagon’s chief management officer role officially disestablished by Congress, Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist has issued guidance on where the authorities and personnel associated with that office will go.
While the CMO team “attempted to make the best use of the structure that Congress gave them,” ultimately Congress concluded a new approach was needed, Norquist told a small group of reporters in a Monday call. As a result, the CMO’s office was officially disestablished with the Jan. 1 passage of the National Defense Authorization Act, which charged Norquist to handle the logistics.
Two offices that previously existed separate from the CMO are being taken wholesale and placed back as standalone organizations. The bulk of CMO-affiliated personnel work for the director of administration and management, who oversees the operations of the Pentagon building. The other is the office of the assistant to the secretary of defense for intelligence oversight.
Both organizations have appointed leaders — Thomas Muir and Mark Dupont, respectively — and can be replaced by the Biden administration.
While pulling those two offices wholesale out of CMO was “relatively straightforward,” Norquist said, other offices will take a few weeks to sort out. Three landing spots have been identified: the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office, the comptroller’s office, and the chief information officer.
He said Pentagon officials are in contact with impacted personnel to ensure they know where they might land. He also wants to take the time to ensure all the human resources aspects are covered. However, no one currently at the CMO’s office will lose their employment.
In early 2020, then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper charged CMO Lisa Hershman with serving as the lead on developing the budget for the so-called fourth estate offices, a role she described as basically a service secretary for that group. Norquist, however, indicated there were challenges with that setup, particularly when it came to making fiscal trade-offs between offices that operate in very different worlds.
Now, instead of all fourth estate offices submitting a combined budget request, the offices will be divided by portfolio. The director of the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office will serve as the portfolio lead for policy-related organizations, such as the Missile Defense Agency. The comptroller’s office will oversee support groups such as the Defense Logistics Agency and the Defense Finance and Accounting Service.
“So I think what we did is we built off of Secretary Esper’s concept and said: ‘How do we do it so that those trades can be made prior to the [program objective memorandums] being submitted the way a service does, between those things within the service?’ ” Norquist said. “We picked up on the idea and then tried to figure out how to make it more functional going forward.”
Norquist acknowledged that moving offices around in the week leading up to a White House transition may not be ideal, but he said he briefed President-elect Joe Biden’s team on his thinking and noted that the NDAA’s language requiring an immediate closure of the office left the Pentagon no choice but to act quickly.
“This is not a surprise to them. I’ve talked to them about that, they understand the timing, it’s very clear to them,” Norquist said of the transition team. “I want to leave them something that’s working and functional, but it’s only a memo. And if they decide to adjust it, it is well within their powers to do so.”
Asked directly about whether he would stay on if asked, Norquist declined to comment. There is speculation in defense circles that Norquist — largely seen as more of a wonk than a political actor — could be kept on as acting defense secretary until Lloyd Austin, Biden’s nominee for the role, can be confirmed.
But more broadly, Norquist described his view of the transition as one in which his job is to set up the next administration for success, something he said the Obama team did for him when he came in as comptroller, particularly with regard to planning for the Defense Department’s first-ever audit.
“For those of us who are political, we’re stepping onto a relay track, and when we’re part of a team, and somebody runs behind you and hands you the baton and then you get on the track and you run. But you know, at the end of the day you’re going to hand it to somebody else,” Norquist said. “And you need to hand it off in a way that is effective and coherent.
“What I want to do is to do for them what they did for me, which was to leave in place all the tools necessary in a sensible structure.”
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.