Reshaping and resizing the Pentagon – Plus your Weekend Reads

Government restructuring. It seems like we have been talking about eliminating duplicative programs for years. But there hasn't been much progress. But now that sequestration and other budget cuts are on the table a restructuring of government seems to be inevitable, especially at the Defense Department.

So how do you restructure correctly? Christopher Lamb is a research fellow at the Institute of National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University. He wrote a piece in Federal Times: Seeking production from Pentagon staff reduction.

Lamb told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program that the prevalent theory that a leaner staff is more efficient is a bit naive.

"It is a superficially plausible conclusion to arrive at. People look at large groups of people and say, "Hey these large numbers are harder to coordinate and present some real challenges. I think leaders in particular see the friction among their subordinate components. They have large staffs and they reason that they would spend less time coordinating products and it would be easier if there were fewer of them. They arrive naturally at that conclusion," said Lamb

Painful personnel cuts leave little time to factor in performance?

"The best time to make reforms in an organization is when things are going well. Why? Because there are resources available and there is lots of time to evaluate options. But it is also the most difficult time to make changes politically because people don’t see the need for change. They say, “Hey we are doing well, let’s leave things as they are.” So they wait until there is a crisis and it is the other way around. There is a manifest need for change but there is no time and little resources to see how it can best be accomplished. That’s how it is with staff cuts. If you look at what the Pentagon is doing now they ask the guy leading the study poor Mike Donnelly to figure out in one month how to cut the OSD staff by 20%. That is worse than a decimation. The Romans used to line you up on a bridge and get rid of every 10th soldier. At the Pentagon we are getting rid of every 5th member of the Secretary’s staff. It is a huge undertaking. Naturally they are going to resort to the least painful and immediate options they have. They are going to stop hiring. They are going to refuse to backfill retirements. They are going to move functions out of the building so it looks like the overhead is smaller," said Lamb.

Talk about duplication?

  • There is a list of complicated reasons why staff’s grow. It is true that government’s tend to reward people that grow their bureaucratic empire. That may sound cynical, but there is some degree of truth in that. But it is also true that there has been a burgeoning set of requirements put on senior leaders. Proliferating security commitments, Congressional requirements for reports, more complex defense programs etc. etc. That’s true is well.
  • But the thing we tend to overlook a lot is the impact technological advances. There is a corresponding increase in the degree of functional specialization that leaders need. In the Defense Department just look at the proliferation of the technological means to acquire intelligence and there’s a corresponding increase in staff and in organizations to provide that type of intelligence. That is true in the medical field and many other places as well. So there is a natural inclination to grow staff just to remain competent.
  • But the final factor that people don’t pay attention to - I mean they talk about it but they don’t think about the organizational structure consequences is that we increasingly face multidisciplinary problems. That’s true across government. That’s where collaboration comes in. If you can’t collaborate across your bodies functional expertise then you are going to have a tendency to grow staff. Because each principal staff assistant is going to say I don’t trust this other guy to give me the information I need but I know this problem requires a diverse functional expertise so I will grow some that on my own staff.

Missing Expertise?

"I once had the opportunity to talk to the Vice President’s national security adviser on a helicopter ride. He told me an amazing experience in Kosovo that he was sitting at the White House up to his neck in intelligence reports on what to do about Molisch and he discovered there was a very small group in the bowels of the pentagon that had already answered all the questions he was raising, but he didn’t know they existed until he bumped into someone with that specialized knowledge. The shear size of government and the diversity of the expertise make coordinating it a challenge. But it is also true that we know where to get the information but we just don’t believe it will be provided to use," said Lamb.

Empower the team

"What it boils down to is if you look at the small cross-functional groups that perform well they are really empowered teams, where the members transfer loyalty to their mission rather than protecting their parent organization’s perceived equities. But that is not the norm in government. The norm is committees where everyone comes together and tries to protect the equities of their parent organization. That’s where you get least common denominator decision making or stalemates," said Lamb.

Top down support
"Have to have the preconditions for success put in place. That is the responsibility of senior leadership. If they don’t insist on a collaborative organizational culture you aren’t going to get it," said Lamb.

Weekend Reads: 

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