DoD experts weigh in on the way out of budget squeeze

Friday - 4/6/2012, 3:24pm EDT

DoD performance measurement and resources panel discussion

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Federal agencies are looking for ways to improve performance, but they also have to be careful with every dollar they spend. No one is dealing with this more right now than the Department of Defense, which is under a mandate to cut future spending by nearly $500 billion. Sequestration threatens to make things worse. The Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp explored how two DoD components are balancing performance and resources in a panel discussion with:
  • Dave Bennett, vice component acquisition executive at the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA)
  • Eric Fanning, deputy undersecretary of the Navy and deputy chief management officer
  • Dr. Natalie Houghtby-Haddon, associate director at the George Washington University Center for Excellence in Public Leadership

From left: Emily Kopp, Dave Bennett, Natalie Houghtby-Haddon and Tom Temin. Not pictured: Eric Fanning. (Lauren Larson/Federal News Radio)

Eliminating redundancies

In recent years, DISA has focused on making "smaller, more discretely defined programs," so that lower-level project leaders can manage day-to-day operations, Bennett said. This frees up executives to focus on the big picture, with an eye toward spotting components that are doing the same thing.

"We have a series of processes that we have in place now to look at and make sure we're not being redundant in delivering capability that the agency is putting out, or that the services themselves are putting out," he said.

DISA holds weekly sessions similar to HUDStat at the Department of Housing and Urban Development and TechStat at the Office of Management and Budget to analyze performance goals.

"We go through from an agency perspective, even from the three-star level all the way down, a review of select programs across the agency, to say, 'Where are you at? Where are you going? What are the difficulties you're running into? How does this relate to your DoD partners? Are you delivering the capability they're expecting? Do you have any dependencies there?'" he said.

At the Navy, Fanning said the focus isn't on holding more meetings so much as different meetings.

"We're using existing government structures, existing processes, existing meetings in a different way," Fanning said.

Houghtby-Haddon said teaching high-level managers about big-picture thinking is one of the most important things she does.

"Whatever their division or their program is, it actually has an impact across an agency. And so [we] give them that bigger picture of what other people in the agency do, and so that they know how to connect with folks and develop a network across the agency. So if they've got a problem or they're trying to fix something...they've got a set of connections they can draw on," she said.

Focusing on the mission

And when it comes to understanding a particular agency's role in a broader departmental mission, the DoD has a lot to teach civilian agencies.

"Part of that is the life-and-death nature of what it is that the Department of Defense does...in a way that's much clearer than some of the more civilian-focused federal agencies. Everyone is aware that what they do has an impact," Houghbty-Haddon said. "In that sense, I think there's a mission focus that enables a willingness to judge performance measurement as a key factor in what they do."

Translating that mission focus to civilian agencies may help them define goals more clearly and better evaluate where money can be saved.

"Once they're focused on the mission, then everyone is willing to say, 'Yes, we'll do what it takes to achieve that mission,'" she said.

Applying resources against priorities

While the DoD is accustomed to budget contraction every time a war ends, Fanning stressed that these days, agencies must accept budget cuts as "permanent." With that, the agencies must accept that performance measurement and metrics are also here to stay.

"As metrics more and more come into play...we've started to, over time, evolve the agency structure, if you will, to make sure we have the right dollars and the right people," Bennett said.

In January, DISA collapsed two organizations together, to refine the focus of their missions. All federal agencies are looking to re-align focus and measure achievements, and this is another area where the DoD can lead the way.

"On the war-fighting side, the services, certainly the Department of the Navy, [is] very good at applying resource against priorities. Measuring outcome and having metrics—they're our tried-and-true models that have evolved over time," Fanning said. "It's the business side, where we have a little bit more trouble...that's really the focus of the DCMO and the Department of the Navy right now."