Congress weighs fate of DOD's chief management officer

The Defense Department's chief management office is, again, fending off political pressure to eliminate it.

The future of the Defense Department's chief management officer position is in dispute among lawmakers as the Pentagon's third top official in that spot pushes forward on the pandemic reopening plan.

When asked if he would support a provision eliminating the CMO role, House Armed Services Committee (HASC) Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said he was "open" to the idea but thinks the position should exist a little longer to prove its essentiality.

"I'm still being educated on that point," Smith told reporters during a Defense Writers Group call June 30. "We keep changing this -- in, out, you're going to do it, you're going to do it -- I would like to sort of stick with this one."

Lisa Hershman, the Pentagon's current CMO who was confirmed in December, held a quarterly town hall for the Office of the CMO June 29. While Hershman largely focused on the Pentagon's reopening plan and topics such as telework and mask wearing, she also directly addressed the provision that would terminate her role.

"Keep in mind this is the first draft of proposed language offered by one committee and one chamber of Congress," Hershman said. "This is a long process.... They are doing a lot of work to be done this week; so far nothing's yet been mentioned of the CMO."

Smith said that he's primarily talked with Hershman and Ranking Member Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) on the issue. His initial take is that the CMO hasn't been a demonstrable "disaster that it warrants the radical step of elimination" but said he's "open to being more educated."

The chairman's comments come after the Senate Armed Services Committee released its version of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act with a provision that would eliminate the CMO position and reassign duties.

The HASC chairman's mark doesn't have such a provision. It does list the CMO as a primary member of a steering committee proposed for the development and implementation of a digital data management and analytics capability that would streamline the acquisitions process, record and track data from research to testing. 

Smith said that Hershman has presented good information about the CMO's productivity and frequent big reorganizational changes "makes it more difficult."

"Let's give them a chance to at least do their job before we rip the floor out from under them. But if someone thinks that getting rid of the CMO puts us in a more efficient position, I'm open to hearing that argument," Smith said.

Thornberry expressed some disappointment with the role in a call with reporters June 29.

Thornberry said Congress created the position to have "a service secretary over the defense-wide agencies, the Fourth Estate" but that "the authorities and the responsibilities are not aligned."

The ranking member put much of that disjointedness on Congress, saying it was the legislative body's responsibility to correct it and that he may submit an amendment to the 2021 NDAA on it that could include suggestions from a Defense Business Board study released June 1.

Thornberry didn't mention which recommendations he'd likely take up, but the DBB study suggested three main paths: creating two new deputy defense secretaries, amplifying the current deputy defense secretary role to function more like a chief operating officer and redesignating the CMO as a principal undersecretary for business transformation.

No more COVID money?

The HASC chairman was a bit more firm when it came to the matter of giving DOD more money to help offset defense contractors' added expenses during the pandemic.

"First of all, they have not given us specific dollar figures," Smith said, and secondly, "I believe they can meet those requirements within the budget that we have given them, and we don't need to give them any more money."

Smith's comments come after DOD's acquisition chief, Ellen Lord, testified that the department needed "lower double digit billions" to offset contractors' costs. But the chairman wasn't convinced, saying that unallocated money given in the CARES Act and to fund the White House's U.S.-Mexico border wall plan could be used instead of another payout.

"I have yet to see evidence that DOD cannot adjust within their existing budget strength. And I would suggest, by the way, if they're looking for low double digit billions, that maybe some of that unallocated money that is going to build the [border] wall can be reallocated to where it should be in DOD," Smith said.

This article first appeared on FCW, a Defense Systems partner site.