Defense

Congress axes CMO office in 2021 defense bill

Pentagon photo by Air Force Tech. Sgt. Ned T. Johnston 

The Defense Department's third top position will get eliminated after just two years in existence, according to language in the final version of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act.

The House and Senate versions of the bill contained provisions that would dismantle the CMO position. The Senate receded its version adding a requirement the position be repealed "with enumerated amendments" once the bill is signed into law, according to the conferees explanatory statement. The defense secretary would then have a year to transfer the CMO's duties and resources to other personnel or organizations.

The CMO role was initially created in 2018 to help the Defense Department implement reforms to business operations and oversee administrative defense agencies and components often referred to as the Fourth Estate. Despite touting billions in cost savings over the past year, the position has been embroiled in controversy from the initial resignation of the first CMO, Jay Gibson, over cost savings, to increased scrutiny and defense-wide reviews that followed.

Those same cost-savings, upwards of $37 billion according to DOD, could be at risk if there's no continuity in leadership. Peter Levine, a senior fellow with the Institute for Defense Analyses and DOD's former deputy CMO said that while he doesn't have a strong attachment to the chief management office he hopes that Congress sticks to whatever it decides.

"Congress has been changing around the organization of that part of the way the Department of Defense works seemingly every year or two for the last six or seven years. I sure hope that whatever they resolve … I hope they stick with it for a while because if you want to have significant attention on management reform, you gotta not have those people spending all their time reorganizing the office," Levine told FCW before the final bill was released.

A recent Government Accountability Office report supported that perspective, noting that "uncertainty" about the CMO position could present a challenge when implementing consistent reform efforts, including defining what constitutes reform and having formal written policies -- both of which are lacking.

To affect lasting organizational change, Levine, who was also the acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said homing in on a manageable set of issues while maintaining intensity and focus at the senior leadership level is key for the incoming administration.

"You can't take on everything at the same time and you can't delegate it all down because if you do that, not much is going to happen," Levine said.

"In order to get significant management improvements implemented in the Department of Defense, you have to have continuous engagement from the senior leadership," he said.

"It's hard because the senior leadership of the department always has day-to-day crises that are coming up and trying to take their attention. So there has to be a conscious decision...to maintain some focus on these reform efforts, because I know they're important for the long term interests of the department."

Congress is expected to vote next week on the bill, which is under presidential veto threat.

About the Author

Lauren C. Williams is senior editor for FCW and Defense Systems, covering defense and cybersecurity.

Prior to joining FCW, Williams was the tech reporter for ThinkProgress, where she covered everything from internet culture to national security issues. In past positions, Williams covered health care, politics and crime for various publications, including The Seattle Times.

Williams graduated with a master's in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park and a bachelor's in dietetics from the University of Delaware. She can be contacted at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @lalaurenista.

Click here for previous articles by Wiliams.


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