Defense Headquarters:

Further Efforts to Examine Resource Needs and Improve Data Could Provide Additional Opportunities for Cost Savings

GAO-12-345: Published: Mar 21, 2012. Publicly Released: Mar 21, 2012.

Additional Materials:


John H. Pendleton
(404) 679-1816


Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800

What GAO Found

The Department of Defense (DOD) has taken some steps to examine its headquarters resources for efficiencies, but additional opportunities for cost savings may exist by further consolidating organizations and centralizing functions. For purposes of the Secretary of Defense’s efficiency initiative, DOD components were asked to focus in particular on headquarters and administrative functions, support activities, and other overhead in their portfolios. DOD’s fiscal year 2012 budget request included several efficiencies related to headquarters organizations or personnel. GAO found that these efficiencies generally fell into two categories: (1) consolidating or eliminating organizations based on geographic proximity or span of control and (2) centralizing overlapping functions and services. The DOD efficiencies that GAO reviewed to reduce headquarters resources are expected by DOD to save about $2.9 billion through fiscal year 2016, less than 2 percent of the $178 billion in savings DOD projected departmentwide. GAO’s work indicates that DOD may be able to find additional efficiencies by further examining opportunities to consolidate organizations or centralize functions at headquarters. DOD may not have identified all areas where reductions in headquarters personnel and operating costs could be achieved because the department was working quickly to identify savings in the fiscal year 2012 budget and used a top-down approach that identified several targets of opportunity to reduce costs, including headquarters organizations, but left limited time for a detailed data-driven analysis. In February 2012, DOD proposed $61 billion in additional savings over fiscal years 2013 to 2017, but provided limited information as to what portions of these savings were specific to headquarters. Without systematic efforts to reexamine its headquarters resources on a more comprehensive basis, DOD may miss opportunities to shift resources away from overhead.

An underlying challenge facing DOD is that it does not have complete and reliable headquarters information available for use in making efficiency assessments and decisions. According to GAO’s internal control standards, an agency must have relevant, reliable, and timely information in order to run and control its operations. DOD Instruction 5100.73 guides the identification and reporting of headquarters information. However, GAO found that this instruction is outdated and does not identify all headquarters organizations, such as component command headquarters at U.S. Africa Command and certain Marine Corps headquarters. Also, although some of the services and functions performed by contractors could be considered as headquarters activities, the instruction does not address the tracking of contractors that perform these functions. DOD has delayed updating the instruction to allow time for components to adjust to the statutory changes enacted by Congress in 2009 that created new headquarters reporting requirements. According to DOD officials, ever-changing statutory reporting requirements have contributed to DOD’s failure to report to Congress about the numbers of headquarters personnel. As the department did not have reliable headquarters data, DOD compiled related information from other sources to inform its 2010 efficiency initiative. Because of the short timelines given to identify efficiencies and limitations on the sharing of information, this information was not validated before decisions were made. As a result, some of the information used to identify headquarters-related efficiencies was inaccurate and some adjustments in resource allocations will have to be made during implementation to achieve planned savings. Looking to the future, until DOD has updated its instruction to ensure that it has complete and reliable headquarters data, the department will not have the information it needs, which could affect its efforts to direct resources to its main priorities during future budget deliberations.

Why GAO Did This Study

The Department of Defense’s (DOD) headquarters and support organizations have grown since 2001, including increases in spending, staff, and numbers of senior executives and the proliferation of management layers. In 2010, the Secretary of Defense directed DOD to undertake a departmentwide initiative to reduce excess overhead costs. In response to a mandate, GAO evaluated the extent to which DOD (1) examined its headquarters resources for efficiencies and (2) has complete and reliable headquarters information available for use in making efficiency decisions. For this review, GAO analyzed documents and interviewed officials regarding DOD’s headquarters resources and information.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that DOD continue to examine opportunities to consolidate organizations and centralize functions and services and revise DOD Instruction 5100.73 to include all headquarters organizations, specify how contractors performing headquarters functions will be identified and included in reporting, clarify how components are to compile information needed to respond to headquarters reporting requirements, and establish time frames for implementing these actions. DOD concurred with GAO’s first recommendation and partially concurred with GAO’s second recommendation.

For more information, contact John Pendleton at (404) 679-1816 or

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD concurred with the recommendation, and stated that it will continue to seek opportunities to realign personnel and organizations to support evolving operations, missions, and threats. In response to our recommendation, the department stated that it would continue to assess its organizational structure and personnel to optimize output and eliminate efficiencies. However, DOD provided few details on how it would conduct this assessment. Based in part on GAO's body of work on DOD headquarters, Congress required DOD to develop a plan for streamlining its management headquarters. Specifically, in section 904 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014 Congress directed DOD to develop a plan for streamlining by changing or reducing the size of staffs, eliminating tiers of management, cutting functions that provide little or no added value, and consolidating overlapping and duplicative programs and offices, and to report on this plan no later than 180 days after enactment. The plan is to include a description of the planned changes or reductions in staffing and services provided by military personnel, civilian personnel, and contractor personnel, a description of the planned changes or reductions in management, functions, and programs and offices, the estimated cumulative savings to be achieved over a 10-fiscal-year period beginning with fiscal year 2015, and estimated savings to be achieved for each of fiscal years 2015 through 2024. DOD was also directed to submit a status report on the implementation of its plan along with the President's budget materials for fiscal years 2016 through 2024. In May 2015, DOD's Plan for Streamlining DOD Management Headquarters was issued, reflecting its initial and first status report to Congress. The actions taken by Congress and DOD, partly in response to our work, should help DOD to more efficiently manage headquarters resources and find cost savings as it seeks to resource its strategic priorities. As the department looks ahead to fulfilling these requirements, it should take steps to ensure that these and other planned headquarters reductions are realized while continuing to look for further efficiencies at headquarters across the department.

    Recommendation: To further DOD's efforts to reduce overhead-related costs in light of the recent changes in DOD's strategic priorities, the Secretary of Defense should direct the secretaries of the military departments and the heads of the DOD components to continue to examine opportunities to consolidate or eliminate military commands that are geographically close or have similar missions, and to seek further opportunities to centralize administrative and command support services, functions, or programs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  2. Status: Open

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: DOD partially concurred with this recommendation based on their understanding of the instruction. As of December 2018, DOD has not completed actions to address three of the four parts of this recommendation. (1) In August 2015, DOD stated that it has established a comprehensive definition of major DOD headquarters activities and will update the DOD Instruction defining major headquarters. According to DOD officials, this will include efforts to accurately and completely report all major DOD headquarters activity organizations. As of December 2018, DOD had not updated the instruction, DOD Instruction 5100.73.(2) DOD has made some progress toward better accounting for contractors but has not identified an approach to include contractors as part of its major DOD headquarters reporting, as GAO recommended in March 2012. DOD stated that it submitted a plan to the congressional defense committees in November 2011 for its Inventory of Contracts for Services that established both near-term and long-term actions needed to improve overall visibility and accountability of all contracted services, including those performed in support of major DOD headquarters activities. This plan and subsequent guidance issue in December 2011 describe the steps being taken to account for the level of effort of contracted support, based on the activity requiring the service. DOD noted that aligning contract support with the requiring activity, as opposed to the contracting activity, will ensure that the department can reflect contractor full-time equivalents based on direct labor hours collected from contractors supporting major DOD headquarters activities. Since that time, DOD has taken steps to consolidate systems across the military departments and define roles and responsibilities of the office responsible for managing the Inventory reporting process. However, issues with collecting and using common data remain, and DOD has not identified an approach to include contractors as part of its DOD headquarters reporting. Until the department resolves the issues affecting the implementation of a common data system and identifies an approach to include contractors as part of its major DOD headquarters reporting, the department will not have complete information on headquarters staffing, which will likely hinder its ability to make informed management decisions about its headquarters resources. (3) DOD clarified how it would respond to section 1109 of the fiscal year 2010 National Defense Authorization Act to satisfy this part of the recommendation. (4) DOD has taken some steps to revise DOD Instruction 5100.73, but it does not expect to issue an updated Instruction until this effort is complete. DOD has also not yet established time frames for determining how contractors are to be included in major DOD headquarters activity reporting.

    Recommendation: To improve DOD's ability to identify how many headquarters personnel it has, including military, civilian and contractor personnel, and improve the information Congress and DOD need to ensure that headquarters organizations are appropriately sized and overhead positions are reduced to the extent possible, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Director of Administration and Management, in consultation with the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, to revise DOD Instruction 5100.73, Major DOD Headquarters Activities, to (1) include all major DOD headquarters activity organizations, (2) specify how contractors performing major DOD headquarters activity functions will be identified and included in headquarters reporting, (3) clarify how components are to compile the major DOD headquarters activities information needed to respond to the reporting requirements in section 1109 of the fiscal year 2010 National Defense Authorization Act, and (4) establish time frames for implementing the actions above to improve tracking and reporting headquarters resources.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense


Explore the full database of GAO's Open Recommendations »

Aug 22, 2019

Aug 20, 2019

Aug 15, 2019

Aug 9, 2019

Jul 31, 2019

Jul 26, 2019

Jul 11, 2019

Jun 28, 2019

Jun 27, 2019

Looking for more? Browse all our products here