Ellen Lord in 2020.

Ellen Lord in 2020. Defense Department / Air Force Staff Sgt. Brittany A. Chase

Can IT restore Congress’ trust in the Pentagon?

The Defense Department needs a better way to share budget data, a new report urges.

The Pentagon may need to buy a new communications platform to improve its relationship with Congress, according to a new congressionally mandated report. 

“At a tactical level, there are going to be contentious communications unless we have a very data-driven discussion,” said Ellen Lord, former Pentagon weapons buyer and now vice chair of the Congress-mandated Planning, Programming, Budgeting and Execution Commission. “And fundamental to much of what we've done here is talking about the skepticism with which Congress often looks at the department because a lot of conversations happen that aren't substantiated with supporting data in a timely fashion. So in order to make this happen, we need a lot of transparent data transmission on a frequent basis.” 

DOD already uses a communications platform called the secure unclassified network, or SUNet, to communicate with external partners, including academia and government entities. But it’s a bespoke system without direct program funding, so it’s difficult for the Pentagon to manage cybersecurity requirements, according to a 2023 DOD inspector general report

Moreover, very few people even know about it: the commission found just four congressional staffers with login credentials to SUNet. 

The commission suggests DOD get a platform to share information like budget materials and congressional reports in a digital space that “can be readily searched, sorted, and retrieved for analysis across all security classification levels.” 

The report also recommends a common analytics platform, like ADVANA, the one the Pentagon comptroller uses. That would update business systems and reduce staffers’ workloads, which falls in line with the Pentagon’s push to use data and analytics to improve daily and tactical operations in recent years. 

“In this day and age, we really need systems that are searchable and sortable, both for ease of use within DOD as well as by the Hill,” Lord told reporters during a Defense Writers Group event Wednesday. “But in order to leverage data analytics provided by AI and other mechanisms, we need data lakes and we need data that is transparent and accessible. So, I feel strongly about making sure we have digital submissions” of budget justification materials, for example, “so that we're not putting such an onus on staffers to try to figure out what's in there.” 

The panel spent two years gathering and assessing information, and collaborating with defense leaders and members of Congress to produce 28 recommendations across a nearly 400-page report. The goal is to help the Pentagon better plan for, budget, and buy what it needs faster. 

But while the lead commissioners are optimistic about the feasibility of making recommendations a reality, there’s concern the Pentagon will be too busy to do it. 

The panel’s meatiest recommendation is getting rid of the existing PPBE process altogether and replacing it with a process called the Defense Resourcing System, to align strategic and operational needs with budgets.

The aim is to give more flexibility and control to program managers and program executive offices, specialized organizations within the military branches charged with buying everything from weapons to radios and network services. 

“Right now the PMs and the PEOs don't have as much discretion,” Lord said, “to be able to make changes in the year of execution, to be able to do reprogramming, to be able to carry over funds, to be able to around milestones be able to move quickly from [research, development, testing, and evaluation] into procurement and so forth.”

Defense committee leaders Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Roger Wicker, R-Miss., called the PPBE commission’s report encouraging, and said the recommendations “should help the Department develop new technologies in a streamlined, agile manner.”

“Threats to our nation’s security are expanding and accelerating. The Department of Defense must therefore evolve to keep pace. For too long, the Department’s cumbersome and outdated financial and resource management practices have acted as a drag on America’s defense acquisition system,” the senators said in a statement

“We are encouraged that after two years of diligent study and analysis, the PPBE Reform Commission has produced a report outlining more than two dozen recommendations. These findings should help the department develop new technologies in a streamlined, agile manner. We appreciate the commissioners’ expert, bipartisan work, and we look forward to reviewing their findings.”

Last year, the Pentagon endorsed 13 of the commission's recommendations, following the interim report, and has now released an implementation plan for them, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks announced Wednesday. 

Hicks also urged Congress to pass a budget, echoing the commission's call for on-time government funding. 

“Today, the Department is less than a week away from releasing our FY 2025 budget request, even as we still await FY 2024 appropriations, more than five months late and counting,” Hicks said in a statement.

“I urge Congress to undertake the single most important defense resourcing reform for our generation: a return to predictable and routine resourcing to ensure the federal government can meet the nation's national security needs.”