Will Mattis usher in a new era of DOD reform?

Mattis has requested a review of DOD's core business processes. Will this launch a new era of procurement reforms and new ways of doing business?

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has instructed his deputy secretary, Bob Work, to commence a thorough evaluation of the department’s core business processes.

Mattis told Work to explore opportunities for consolidation, modernization and savings in the management of personnel, real property, acquisition and contracts, logistics and supply chain, base operations, morale, welfare and recreation services, cyber and information technology.

Sound familiar? It should. This is far from the first time a Secretary of Defense has issued such a broad directive aimed at the department’s management systems and infrastructure. Moreover, the language in Mattis’s directive bears a striking, and intentional, likeness to a 2016 Defense Business Board report, in which the board identified a wide range of opportunities to generate literally billions of dollars of savings and improved performance.

That report was widely rejected by the department’s leadership at the time but, at least in some key areas, appears to have been embraced by the new secretary.

So, what is the likely effect of this new directive?  While the answer to that question won’t be known for some time, there are several dynamics worth noting.

First and foremost, this directive comes at the very beginning of his tenure—even before any other members of the OSD team have been nominated, let alone confirmed. In sending a firm signal that management reform will be a major priority, Mattis has taken the first and most important step in any reform effort.

And as the next tiers of appointees come on board they will be joining an organization in which the top leadership has already set the tone. In addition, Work, whether he remains for a few months or is reappointed as the department’s number two official, can conduct the review largely unencumbered by the influences of senior officials whose organizations could be impacted.

Having had the privilege of directing a similar initiative for then-Secretary William Cohen, I can say from first-hand experience that both of those are significant advantages.

At the same time, for this effort to gain traction and momentum, Mattis will need to find ways to engage and invest in the process with those same organizations, at the top and front line operational levels.

That too is a fundamental tenet of change management. Thus, the lack of component leadership could also be real hindrance. If the deputy secretary has to rely too much on entrenched, traditional thinking, his ability to develop and execute meaningful change of the scope and type that is needed could be compromised.

Second, the secretary’s directive comes early in an administration that has already made clear its willingness to rapidly and aggressively challenge a range of orthodoxies. While some of those challenges have generated considerable debate, Mattis knows he can count on, and will need, strong support from above, if and when he opts to pursue forward-leaning reforms that really disrupt traditional models.

This will be particularly true as the department considers the significant disruption, savings and performance improvements technology generally and digital transformation more specifically can drive. After all, those advances involve fundamental changes to how work is done, and, often, who does the work.

Thus, Mattis is potentially the vanguard for a broader, seminal, and likely contentious debate that must, and at some point will, take place.

That the secretary has specifically called out the need to consolidate operations across the military departments is also interesting. Few would argue with the potential benefits of doing so; the amount of replication and redundancy is very real. But in acquisition especially, and as a result of the most recent defense authorization bill, we are in the midst of a devolution of authority back to the individual services. How does that trend comport with the secretary’s direction? Is there an appetite in the respective military departments for a DoD “shared services” initiative?

Finally, it is fair to expect that this review will lead as well to some new, or revived, thinking around how to best access and capitalize on the private sector. For the department to effect the changes identified by the Defense Business Board and implied in the secretary’s directive, the department will almost certainly need to demonstrate a new openness to a range of partnership models, from traditional public/private partnerships, outcomes-based contracts, share in savings and the like. The fiscal realities are such that they represent a vital bridge between turning the art of the possible into reality.

Mattis clearly recognizes that his hopes for real growth in defense spending hinge in part, possibly large part, on his ability to move the world’s largest organization forward.

Done right, it should open the door to a wide array of new thinking, new models, and new possibilities.