January 23  

Facing budget pressures, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said two years ago that he was ordering the number of top brass and senior civilians at the Pentagon to start shrinking by 20 percent. But federal auditors reported this week that the Defense Department has not produced a realistic plan to make the cuts — and can’t say how many people it has or needs at its management headquarters.

In a new report, the Government Accountability Office described an unwieldy personnel system that seems unable to account for the size of military and civilian staffs at the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff and the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force secretariats and staffs — all headquarters that ballooned in size after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and have only recently begun to level off.

Compounding the problem, contractors form a large chunk of these employees, but DOD does not have an accurate handle on how large, auditors found.

“Without a systematic determination of personnel requirements and periodic reassessment of them, DOD will not be well positioned to proactively identify efficiencies and limit personnel growth within these headquarters organizations,” GAO concluded in a 90-page report released this week.

In other words, downsizing is hard to do when you don’t know how big you are.

The assessment from Congress’ watchdog arm echoed similar alarms auditors sounded as far back as 2012. They came to much the same conclusion about the Defense Department’s pledge to reduce headcount at its six geographic combatant commands, Special Operations, strategic and transportation commands and National Guard and Reserve headquarters.

Auditors are consistently finding that cutting layers of management requires a reliable starting point for how big the military bureaucracy has gotten; DOD apparently does not have one. The agency has not reported to Congress on its efforts to shrink headquarters staff after getting a June 2014 deadline extended to December, GAO found.

DOD’s headquarters organizations are responsible for policymaking, budgeting and management of defense functions, among other key roles.

“However, accounting for the resources devoted to headquarters has been a long-standing challenge for DOD,” auditors wrote.

The increases in staff vary by organization. Civilian and military staff at  Army headquarters, for example, grew by 60 percent to 3,639 in fiscal 2013 from 2,272 in fiscal 2001, not including contractors.

Defense officials have faced pressure to push the military off a war footing with the drawdown of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hagel’s 2013 directive would force the Pentagon and command staffs to shed an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 jobs, a tiny percentage of DOD’s active-duty troops and civilian employees but a high-profile, symbolic effort to address growth in the bureaucracy’s top layers.

Auditors also pointed out that the definition of a headquarters job is subject to interpretation. Many employees who report from non-headquarters offices at DOD do jobs like planning and budgeting that overlap with what employees at headquarters do. But those jobs aren’t counted toward the total the agency has pledged to cut.

GAO recommended that defense officials set up a system to determine how many employees they need at headquarters organizations.

In response to the audit’s conclusions, some defense officials told GAO that they do not regularly reassess how many employees they need because their needs do not change much from year to year. Others said they are starting to figure out their needs.

DOD also raised concerns that the GAO report “lacks perspective when characterizing the department’s headquarters staff” given that the scope of headquarters’ missions requires a  “complex and multilayered structure.”

Bill Urban, a DOD spokesman, said the agency plans to submit a plan for downsizing its headquarters staff to Congress by mid-February. The office  responsible for the report “has undergone both a leadership change and a staff reorganization, which redirected efforts away from the report.” he said.

 

 

 

Lisa Rein covers the federal workforce and issues that concern the management of government.