Sen. John Glenn once described management reform as “the grunt work of government.” Most national security specialists would rather write and think about broad policy issues like great power conflict, responding to cyber threats, or developments in artificial intelligence, but effective management structures and processes are needed to take on the challenges in every one of those areas.
The world’s largest bureaucracy is too big and too complex not to have major management problems. The Department of Defense has an annual budget of more than $700 billion, which is transmitted to Congress with more than 100 separate volumes of supporting materials. It runs the largest acquisition system in the world, spending hundreds of billions of dollars annually on everything from nuclear submarines and hypersonic research to truck tires and accounting services. It has a workforce of almost three million active and reserve servicemembers and civilians, who do everything from flying aircraft to delivering babies. As I have argued elsewhere, the department is more like an economy than a business.
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has prioritized management issues, personally leading a “zero-based” budget review to free up resources for modernization. Management reform requires more than generating savings, however, and there is a risk that the Defense Department’s recurring emphasis on cutting programs may squeeze out needed improvements to organizations, policies, and practices. No secretary of defense will ever be able to “fix” the department’s management problems, but a secretary who can make measurable improvements on four or five