Defense COO role still evolving

Implementing Government Reform

Nearly two years ago, President Bush directed agencies to appoint a chief operating officer to help champion the president's management reform agenda by ensuring that the day-to-day operations of the department run smoothly.

To date, most agencies — at least technically — have complied. Yet very few have created a separate COO position, and in many cases the person who serves as the COO has the responsibilities without the title, as is the case in the Defense Department.

And that, says Comptroller General David Walker, is part of the reason DOD's financial management problem continues to affect the federal government's ability to produce clean audits.

DOD has not "had a high-level official whose primary job is to focus on dealing with the basic business infrastructure of the department," Walker said. "Other departments have given the COO role to the deputy secretary because it was designated a level two [deputy] position. But they should be looking to somebody with significant relevant experience in the private or public sector."

Most high-level appointments, such as the deputy secretary, have a tenure of between two and two-and-a-half years, according to Walker. These people take months to get acclimated to their positions and then leave for more lucrative offers.

"I'm sure at some point [Deputy Defense Secretary Paul] Wolfowitz was given the job of chief operating officer, but there is a fundamental difference between what the deputy does and what the COO would do," Walker said.

DOD spokesman Glenn Flood said the department does not have an actual COO, but that Wolfowitz usually performs the responsibilities commonly associated with a COO.

"Before the war on terror, it was a given that the deputy secretary would handle the day-to-day management of the Pentagon," Flood said. "Then the secretary could take care of the big picture."

Walker said the task of monitoring DOD's daily operations, while simultaneously overseeing various other administrative duties, is too much for anyone to handle.

"This is not at all a slight on Dov Zakheim, Donald Rumsfeld or Paul Wolfowitz, but they've got other things that they've got to do," Walker said, speaking of DOD's comptroller, secretary and deputy secretary, respectively.

Betty Morgan, COO for Reston, Va.-based VeriSolv Technologies Inc., said the role of COO is both important and distinct from other leadership positions within an organization.

"Basically, we have to make sure the day-to-day operations get taken care of," she said. "We make sure the clients are satisfied, the contracting obligations are met and the infrastructure is sound."

"Somebody has to make sure the trains run back at the shop while the CEO is out," Morgan said.

But some officials have managed to make the COO role work as part of their jobs.

Clarence Crawford, associate director for management and chief financial officer for the Office of Personnel Management, does not hold the COO title, but his duties include those of a COO. Crawford's position is a recent creation, and in the past, no one was handling the duties normally associated with a COO, he said.

"I coordinate and oversee the activities of the agency," he said. "I make sure the resources are aligned with the strategic goals we have. That includes overseeing [information technology], finances, human capital, administration, security and equal employment."

Crawford said he works closely with OPM Director Kay Coles James, OPM's director for e-government and other associate directors to make sure they are working together toward common goals.

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Defining a COO

President Bush in July 2001 directed all agencies to name a chief operating officer — someone who is the equivalent of the deputy secretary and would oversee the agency's role in the Bush administration's management reform efforts. According to the memo, the COO will:

* Implement the president's and agency's goals and the agency's mission.

* Provide overall organization management to improve agency performance.

* Assist the agency leader in promoting government reform, developing strategic plans and measuring results.

* Oversee agency efforts to integrate performance and budgeting, expand competitive sourcing, strengthen the workforce, improve financial management, advance e-government, and apply information policy and technology.

Few agencies have named a COO. Some that have include NASA, which appointed retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden Jr.; the Labor Department, which named D. Cameron Findlay; and the National Science Foundation, which named Joseph Bordogna.

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