Thornberry’s aim for agility may mean more agency, with faster-better-cheaper results.

David Ignatius thinks that the “federal government could use more agencies like DARPA”. Earlier this month in the Washington Post, he wrote that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency “behaves more like a Silicon Valley start-up than a bureaucracy.” Alex Haber and Jeff Jeffress similarly find the Special Operations Forces Acquisition, Technology, & Logistics Center “fundamentally different.” Writing in The Hill the same week, they argued that at the SOF AT&L, the “cultural and business principles are innovative and, more importantly, exportable.” Ignatius lamented that “too often in conversations with U.S. officials, you hear explanations about why government can’t do things.” So what’s to stop all of OSD AT&L from thinking different, like DARPA and SOF AT&L? At the moment, probably plenty, but if Congressman Mac Thornberry has his way, the Congress will have another go at making program managers’ jobs and thinking easier.

The articles from the Post and The Hill are both built on interviews with the agencies’ current directors—Arati Prabahkar at DARPA and Jim Geurtz at SOF AT&L—and thus may represent the insiders’ view of these rather outsider operations. Haber and Jeffress offer four general reasons that SOF AT&L is so effective: openness, a willingness to fail (productively), rapid ideation, and feedback. Another two, they say, may be unique to the specials’ special circumstances: a flexible and consolidated organization, and a modest degree of scale and scope. Ignatius stresses a single factor at DARPA: that tolerance of failure on the path to delivering things like, well, the Internet. Two other DARPA chiefs—former director Regina Dugan and acting director Kaigham Gabriel—recently offered a slightly different list of success factors: ambitious goals, temporary project teams, and independence in selecting and running projects. But the title of their October 2013 article in Harvard Business Review—“’Special Forces’ Innovation: How DARPA Attacks Problems”—clearly attested to the kinship with SOF AT&L.

So why can’t Big AT&L seem to get it right? There’s a long list of usual suspects, and a public policy literature describing the pathologies. Let’s start with those burdensome regulations that the Five Guys—Carter, Work, Kendall, McCain, and Thornberry—would mostly like to jettison. How did all that red tape get there in the first place? Stephen Goldsmith, the reforming former mayor of Indianapolis and deputy mayor of New York City, has acknowledged the honest origin of the earliest rules. Early 20th century Progressives simply sought to prevent the abuses of late 19th century Tammany Hallers (see “Lessons From New York City’s Innovation Efforts,” Harvard Business Review, 26 April 2011). But “while their intentions were noble,” as Professor Goldsmith of Harvard’s Kennedy School stressed, “the accumulation of well-intentioned regulations over decades has led to calcified government that severely restricts innovative thinking.”

Today, the calcification comes from all quarters. In “A Theory of Government Red Tape,” (Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, July 1993) and Bureaucracy and Red Tape (Prentice Hall, 2000), Barry Bozeman conjured up a typology of this administrivia. Burdensome regulation can originate from inside or outside an agency, and its avowed purpose can similarly have internal or external goals. Consider just that external-external quadrant: when Under Secretary Kendall wanted to rewrite his procurement instruction (the 5000.02) as briefly as possible, he found that standing legislation would drive his manual well beyond 100 pages. We’d like to think that Congress sometimes imposes its rules for the Pentagon’s internal efficiency, but when does it really ever make things easier? It’s hard to ideate rapidly, try some things that might not work out, and restructure your organization to match the needs of the current problems, all while you’re spending half your time tracking compliance and filling out all the required reports. As Marcus Weisgerber of Defense One quotes an unnamed senior committee staffer this morning, “right now, they’re not managing their programs, they’re managing paperwork between the cubicles [in the] A and the E ring.”

To a certain degree, though, the Congress likes it that way. In “Congressional Oversight Overlooked: Police Patrols versus Fire Alarms” (American Journal of Political Science, February 1984), Mathew McCubbins and Thomas Schwartz distinguished between ex ante and ex post oversight, and explained the allure of the latter. Waiting for the fire alarm of scandal isn’t so often effective, but it’s not costly—and particularly not costly to the congressman. Handwringing in hearings makes for good politicking, even if the sound and fury frequently signify nothing. Lots of rules means lots of gotchas after things go awry, even if breaking a few rules on the way to success can simultaneously garner accolades. At least two agencies, though, get at least a first-round bye in this tournament. The legislature accords DARPA and SOCOM their relative independence and flexibility for two reasons: elite units attract top-notch and presumably more reliable people, and lesser outlays mean smaller scandals when they do occur.

Even apart from the meddling, it’s hard to keep focused when the ultimate goals are so hazy. We might like to say that a given government agency should operate like a Silicon Valley business—or just any decent business. But as James Q. Wilson explained in Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It (Basic Books, 1989), governmental activities have a much harder time measuring outputs and outcomes than do profit-seeking enterprises. Defense in particular falls into a category that Wilson called coping agencies; while they have recognizable outputs (well-trained troops, shiny new kit), their outcomes are much less recognizable (how’s that war in Iraq going?). Outcomes might be less hazy for SOF AT&L, whose troops are on call seemingly daily around the world. But there’s a problem with this theory. At DARPA, the goals may be much fuzzier than at most agencies, as the long technological bets might eventually pay off in very different political circumstances. DARPA doesn’t just cope; it creates internets. So how are things going so well there?

Policies, as my Atlantic Council colleague Alex Ward reminds me, should be the building blocks of strategy. But sometimes, as Michael Hasler of the University of Texas reminds me, policies are just an excuse for stasis or laziness. Here Dugan and Gabriel invoked Christensen’s notion of disruptive innovation: agencies on a comfortable glide path to fiasco often don’t want to undo their well-laid plans. In the process, as Terry Pierce argued in Warfighting and Disruptive Technologies: Disguising Innovation (Routledge, 2004), sustaining technological progress often outpaces the need for better warfighting performance. While the leadership of the US Air Force are enamored of stealth now, the brass in the 1970s preferred lead-sled F-4s to what would become F-117s, and tried to terminate DARPA’s efforts. The intervention of Defense Secretary Harold Brown was needed to resolve that dispute. Today, that sort of intransigence is easy to concoct much further down the hierarchy. With still-thousands of pages in the Federal Acquisition Regulations, it’s easy enough for an annoyed bureaucrat to find some clause that turns an I-don’t-want-to into a more marketable they-won’t-let-me.

Alacrity, that is, actually requires people who care, and who can sustain that drive for years, often in the face of all this adversity. Thus former DARPA program manager Steve Andriole, who now teaches business innovation at Villanova, recently argued that the agency’s processes are not so easily replicated (see “Why Innovation Almost Always Fails,” Forbes, 20 February 2015). As he puts it, expecting every corner of the Defense Department to operate like a special forces unit is to hope that Red Lobster will innovate like Apple. The problem, though, with declaring DARPA and SOCOM special is sic semper the problem of elite units: everyone else gets a signal that he’s not that. As RAND found in reviewing some procurement reforms of the 1990s, the Army Department had some seriously hard institutional work convincing its procurement staff that the old rules were actually gone, and that they were now empowered to do the right thing. Woe unto them later should a scandal erupt—and worse were it found at DARPA or SOCOM. As at Waterloo, when la Garde recule—sauve qui peut.

But DARPA and SOF AT&L aren’t just staffed by top people; they’re agencies with agency. They substantially choose their own problems, time horizons, and exit criteria. For DARPA, Dugan and Gabriel stressed the value of three- to five-year projects. SOF AT&L is almost a Military Channel version of MTV’s Pimp My Ride—folks there don’t commission great machines from the ground up; they mostly manage the more manageable problem of tricking out solid kit that others have already built. Haber and Jeffress admit that “programs intended for long-lasting impact would not do well at SOF AT&L, as the organization’s rapid fielding deemphasizes life-cycle cost and sustainability.” But is that not part of the problem at Big AT&L—excessive interest in scale, scope, and longevity? Should not smallness and speed be less special, and more common beyond just DARPA and SOCOM?

Prabahkar has been telling audiences that big may be dying, and Moore’s Law ending. As I argued a few weeks ago, to get faster at revolutionary, some of Big AT&L’s increasingly grands projets need to wind down. The military proclivity for great leaps forward—just along established and comfortable technological trajectories—may be pouring increasing sums of money into increasingly marginal advances. There will be more aircraft carriers and stealth bombers, but if the weight of the portfolio shifted towards smaller and more frequently iterated, individual procurement officials would have more agency over their programs. One can imagine how it’s hard to stay enthused in all those cubicles about keeping the Joint Strike Fighter program sort-of on track in what is now Year Nineteen.

Shortening the time horizons could be a conscious choice for the department. In Congress, Thorberry is trying to do his part, unveiling a legislative proposal today in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies with the useful title “Agility, Acquisition, and American Security“. As Austin Wright lays out in this morning’s Morning Defense,  the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee is proposing, amongst other things,

  • Empowering program managers to choose the contract type most appropriate for their circumstances,
  • Making permanent a fund for training procurement staff that expires in 2018,
  • Scaling back that paperwork (in one case consolidating six reports into a single “acquisition strategy”), and
  • Eliminating mandatory competitive prototyping.

In any single situation, a bad contract, another class slept-through, some missing homework, or particularly a foregone competitive prototyping could turn out very badly. But the culture of SOF AT&L or DARPA cannot become more exportable unless other parts of the acquisition bureaucracy get the signal that they matter too. Their program managers cannot be expected to produce faster-better-cheaper results unless they have the managerial latitude to make decisions and see their strategies through. In short, they cannot be held to account unless they are accorded the agency that would make them accountable for not just process, but products. Thornberry will chair the eventual hearing, but he deserves a hearing too. It’s time to stop the coping, and to unleash some doing.

James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.