Paper - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Reforming DoD: Steps to Avoid Failure and Make Lasting Change

| Mar. 04, 2021

Washington D.C. enjoys an abundance of several things: monuments, overpriced bars pretending to be dives, and people who believe they know how to fix the Department of Defense. Unfortunately, despite the abundance of both potential reformers and enthusiasm for change, most ideas and initiatives fail. They fail because effectively reforming an organization as complex and with a mission as challenging as the Department of Defense requires far more than just good ideas.


Four Tasks for Reformers

Reformers must perform four tasks to create positive change. First, they must understand the problem they are trying to solve and how it came about. It’s very difficult to understand where you need to go and how to get there if you don’t understand where you are. This involves examining law, organizational structures, culture, and why these all came about. This step, while widely practiced by academics, is often underappreciated by reformers firmly convinced they know the solution to DoD’s problems, even if they don’t quite understand the problem. They are sometimes surprised to learn that their proposed solution has been attempted before, or that the current situation was created to fix the problems from the last time their proposed solution was implemented.

Second, reformers need to discover the future state they believe the DoD should reach. This comes from examining the relevant literature, speaking with experts, bringing in new perspectives, and sometimes, by genuine invention. Christian Brose’s The Kill Chain performs the first two tasks admirably well. It argues that DoD’s technology has largely stagnated due to overcommitment to legacy platforms and bureaucratic processes and a lack of focus on developing networked kill chains. This task is the favorite of many reformers, and certainly makes for the best conversations at the aforementioned overpriced bars. However, the many reformers who stop here do not have a plan, or even a serious proposal. They only have an aspiration.

To move past aspirations, reformers need to identify a path to implementation. This task is far less commonly performed than the first two. It requires understanding the mechanisms that can and should be used, then what should be done with them. Despite the unpopularity of including a roadmap for change in most defense reform proposals, a robust body of literature shows how it’s been done in the past. Victory on the Potomac shows that it was not enough for the authors of the Goldwater-Nichols Act to know the military needed to strengthen combatant commanders. They also had to understand that legislative action by the Armed Services Committees was necessary, and that strengthening the combatant commanders required reducing the service chiefs’ authority. Professor Stephen Rosen’s Winning the Next War: Innovation and the Modern Military notes the importance of establishing career paths and finding senior leader champions for new fields. Military Innovation in the Interwar Period focuses more narrowly on case studies between the two world wars, providing enough depth to understand the nuances of the events and processes that lead to change.

The last task is even more difficult and more commonly neglected than the first three. Defense reformers also need to take steps along the path they’ve identified. Brilliant ideas that are not implemented are, by definition, a failure. This means not just identifying changes to U.S. Code, but drafting legislative language and persuading the right senators and representatives to sponsor and support it. In the Executive Branch, this means helping implementers understand how and why to execute new policy, drafting a new DoD directive or memorandum, or becoming the implementer.


Traps Along the Way

Performing these four tasks lays the groundwork for success, but does not guarantee it. There are other traps along the way that even the most experienced reformers must avoid. Perhaps the most common is the failure to account for the personnel, time, and money needed to create change. Change is expensive, even when it saves money in the long run. Say for instance that the audit of a government agency will require 210,000 work hours over the course of a year, adding up to roughly $10,000,000 for personnel. If the $10 million is not included in the budget, the 210,000 work hours may not be completed, causing the reform to fail.

Reformers also fail by trying to solve several different problems with a single solution. Sadly, silver bullets only slay monsters, not widely-varying bureaucratic issues. In systems as complex as the DoD, single solutions rarely solve many problems unless they are the product of a single root cause. Instead, overambitious solutions typically do not produce any of their intended results.

The third trap along the way is not getting buy-in from stakeholders. Leaders in the Executive and Legislative Branches prefer to reach consensus before making major changes in the Department of Defense. While progress doesn’t require getting every involved party to agree, it’s helpful to identify and engage as many people as possible that can affect a reform’s approval or implementation. This is not just to reduce resistance. It’s also because many proposals need to be adjusted, or are genuinely bad ideas. Stakeholders can and often will help fix problems in advance if they are respectfully engaged.

Finally, reformers should also avoid hiding important initiatives in a sea of other changes. The DoD has a limited number of personnel to process guidance from Congress and the White House. Simply digesting guidance and disseminating it to the appropriate offices takes a great deal of bandwidth. When the DoD receives hundreds of directives each year from the National Defense Authorization Act alone, it is easy for important reforms to be buried. Offices can also be overwhelmed by flurries of changes that must be implemented while they continue to accomplish the mission they are designed for.


The New Administration

The new administration faces no shortage of challenges: combatting a global pandemic of unprecedented proportions; devising an exit strategy for U.S. military involvement in the Middle East; engaging with allies on complex strategic defense priorities, including reviewing planned troop withdrawals in Africa and Europe; the real threat of conflict, kinetic or virtual, with a near-peer competitor; and flat or stagnant defense budgets forcing hard choices to prepare for future warfare; to name a few.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has signaled that he’s reversing traditional Secretary-Deputy roles by looking inward first. His first acts in office have included a Department-wide stand-down to root out extremism, and a zero-based review and dismissal of the Department’s 40+ advisory boards and committees. He’s also pledged to combat systemic racism and issued a review of prior efforts to address sexual assault and harassment. These are thorny problems, many of which have plagued the department for decades and carry their own history and cultural sensitivities. Internal debate about how best to scope, let alone address, these issues will likely consume the Secretary’s first weeks in office.


Peter Levine’s Insights

Thankfully, Peter Levine’s Defense Management Reform: How to Make the Pentagon Work Better and Cost Less offers insights on how best to approach reforming the nation’s largest bureaucracy. Of the Department's many reform efforts, those that succeed have three things in common. First, they offer targeted solutions to the right set of problems. Second, they are enacted or approved by the right set of players. And finally, they are effectively implemented on a lasting basis.

The Goldwater-Nichols Act is widely regarded as a gold standard for Defense reform. It targeted a specific, well defined problem—recent mission failures caused by inter-service rivalry; identified the root cause correctly—organizational weaknesses that prevented services from working together; and recommended a course of action that directly addressed the root cause—a streamlined military chain of command from the President down to the Combatant Commanders and a range of supporting policies to strengthen inter-service coordination. In contrast, recent efforts to address mission integration problems failed by offering a single solution—cross-functional mission teams—to a broad set of problems.

The importance of scoping a problem and correctly identifying and targeting its root cause should not be lost on the new administration, especially when it comes to endemic issues like extremism, racism, and sexual violence among its own ranks. There will be political pressure for quick action and wide sweeping solutions (mandatory training comes to mind), but real change will likely be delivered in targeted and incremental servings.

Even direct orders from the Secretary must also be enacted by the right set of people to succeed. Any reform will be weighed against a plethora of Department priorities. Relevant stakeholders must be identified, persuaded, and empowered to act with urgency. Too often consideration of “what the building thinks” is dismissed as rigid or inflexible. More often than not, there is a reason behind this resistance, and small changes to assuage naysayers can strengthen the reform outlook, without compromising its intent.

Finally, the reform must be effectively implemented on a lasting basis. Statute is often the first, not final step of reform. The Department’s actions, or inaction, over time determine its legacy. And change is hard. Problems rarely emerge overnight, and many well-intentioned ideas from good people have already been tried. Any significant reform will be met by institutional resistance. Strong leadership and continuous engagement with components and functional communities across the DoD will be critical for Austin’s ambitious reform agenda to succeed.


Levine’s Guidance in Action

We’ve seen the wisdom of Peter’s advice in our own work at the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence developing recommendations about the ways and means to use AI to improve national security. We’ve needed to balance recommendations that would create the best outcome but are unlikely to be implemented versus solutions that are less ideal but more likely to be implemented. We’ve also had to weigh making ambitious recommendations to transform deeply flawed systems against less ambitious but possibly more realistic attempts to create necessary change within the existing system.

One such dilemma was the debate about creating new career fields. The government needs a way for AI practitioners to spend an entire career in government service focused on their field. Many of the experts we spoke with believed that the best way to accomplish this would be to overhaul the entire personnel system. They argued that the hiring process, general schedule pay scale, and occupational series system impede the government’s ability to build its workforce.

While we found trying to fix the entire personnel system appealing, pursuing that route meant accepting a great deal of risk. There are a number of mutually exclusive ways the personnel system might be fixed, most of which had supporters attempting to pass and implement their solution. In addition, many military and civilian leaders are vested in the current system. On top of these obstacles, reformers have discussed and attempted to overhaul the personnel system for years, and we did not encounter evidence that any of today’s attempts were much further along than previous, unsuccessful attempts.

In the end, NSCAI decided to work within the current system, despite its flaws. The risk of making a recommendation that would not be enacted outweighed the risk of a recommendation that would not create the best possible outcome, but is more likely to be enacted. While that type of compromise creates perpetual dissatisfaction and disappoints allies, overambition makes no progress whatsoever, often at great cost in both time and money.


Calling on Future Reformers

The results of defense management reform are often the outcome of the balance struck between reformers encountering bureaucracy and entrenched interests that resist change, institutions trying to preserve their functionality while under assault by poorly informed but potentially powerful outsiders, and senior leaders and legislators that must discern between the paths advocated by these two groups. Reformers strive to differentiate their agendas from a sea of complaints and incessant churn. Their task is at least as much persuasion as invention. Successful reformers know how to recognize a good idea, demonstrate its utility, and follow through on its application. From the outside, they appear to simplify complexity and make the intractable tangible. More often, the pathway to reform comes down to four steps, best performed in sequence: understand the problem, identify the objective, outline the path to the objective, and start walking.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Davis, Raina and Justin Lynch. “Reforming DoD: Steps to Avoid Failure and Make Lasting Change.” Paper, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, March 4, 2021.

The Authors