The art of persuasion

Outgoing Navy chief reflects on his legacy

When H. Lee Buchanan was serving as a U.S. Navy ensign in Spain in 1975, he needed to talk with his detailer in Tennessee about his next assignment. After fumbling with an unreliable military phone system that routinely cut off calls, he made a resolution. He decided that if he ever earned a position of authority in the Defense Department, he would never let an inefficient system like that get built.

Years later, after becoming assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition, Buchanan followed through on his promise to himself. He persuaded department leaders that the Navy should acquire systems and networks as a service from a vendor rather than build such systems itself.

"To keep the technology up-to-date, you don't do that by buying it and refreshing it yourself," Buchanan said.

With the backing of service officials, Buchanan's revolutionary philosophy — at least revolutionary for the Navy — took hold and helped lay the groundwork for the $6.9 billion Navy Marine Corps Intranet awarded last September to Electronic Data Systems Corp.

But it took some convincing. Buchanan and his allies argued that the Navy had to get beyond its preoccupation with "sunk costs" — money already spent on systems — which the Navy uses all too often to justify additional funding, he said. Like commercial industry, the Navy had to start looking at systems' future costs and benefits.

Ronald Turner, the Navy's deputy chief information officer for infrastructure, systems and technology, remembers a 1999 meeting with Buchanan. He "stated that we had to figure out a way to capitalize on the huge investments industry was making," Turner said. "If we built or bought the things we would need to implement [NMCI], we'd forever be in the technology upgrade mode in order to keep abreast of the changes that industry made to hardware, software and communications technologies."

Navy officials, after discussions with large corporations, decided that the interoperability and security benefits of merging their 140 different networks would outweigh the sacrifices organizations would face in losing control of their systems environment, Buchanan said.

Buchanan labels himself "results oriented," a management approach that is more common in commercial industry. It's "counter-cultural in this building" to focus on results rather than processes, he said. Government officials usually focus on processes because they change jobs every two to three years, so they need to fall back on methodologies.

The concept of NMCI "was not so much brilliance but simply the one and only" option the Navy had, Buchanan said. It made too much sense to outsource voice, video and data services at a lower cost and with better technical refreshment and interoperability than the department could provide, he said.

True to his candid nature, Buchanan accepted the blame for not briefing more key members of Congress and their staff members early in the process, a mistake that almost doomed NMCI.

However, Buchanan's biggest fear was that vendors would not want to build NMCI. "We had to tailor our needs to what industry could provide," rather than the other way around. Military leaders will have to work closer with vendors to succeed. Will it be difficult for them to do that? "You betcha big time," he said.

A political appointee, Buchanan left the Pentagon on Jan. 20. His years of experience at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Navy should help him do well in industry, where he plans to go next. "I'm a techno-nerd" who's interested in the "management and movement of technology," he said.

Buchanan holds a doctorate in applied physics. As assistant secretary of the Navy, he learned a valuable lesson that should serve him well in his next job: At least one tenet of physics — that certain results are mathematically predictable given certain causes — doesn't hold true, he said with a laugh.

The H. Lee Buchanan file

Management philosophy: "I like to be thought of as someone who manages results and not processes — products and not intentions."

Hobbies: He is a private pilot and certified scuba diver and likes to ski and cook.

Favorite book: "The Innovator's Dilemma."

Favorite movies: "Support Your Local Sheriff" and "The Patriot."

Highlights from Navy military service: Flew an EP-3E in the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Flew an EA-6 off the USS America after the bombing of Marine Corps barracks in Beirut in 1983.

Quotation: "I don't see anything mystical about information technology. We should have the same kind of program management rigor that we have for ships and airplanes."


  • FCW Perspectives
    zero trust network

    Why zero trust is having a moment

    Improved technologies and growing threats have agencies actively pursuing dynamic and context-driven security.

  • Workforce
    online collaboration (elenabsl/

    Federal employee job satisfaction climbed during pandemic

    The survey documents the rapid change to teleworking postures in government under the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stay Connected