Defense Acquisition Workforce:

Opportunities Exist to Improve Practices for Developing Program Managers

GAO-18-217: Published: Feb 15, 2018. Publicly Released: Feb 15, 2018.

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Michael J. Sullivan
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sullivanm@gao.gov

 

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Cost and schedule overruns have plagued DOD’s major defense acquisition programs, with current projected costs exceeding initial expectations by $484 billion and delays averaging 31 months. To keep programs on track, DOD relies on program managers who can balance factors that influence cost, schedule, and performance.

The military services have taken steps to develop top-notch talent for this role. We compared their practices for training, mentoring, retaining, and selecting program managers to those of leading organizations and found shortfalls.

We made recommendations for improvements, such as making more use of financial incentives.

 

Photographs of military defense acquisitions.

Photographs of military defense acquisitions.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Michael J. Sullivan
(202) 512-4841
sullivanm@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

Leading organizations use 10 key practices to train, mentor, retain, and ultimately select skilled program managers. GAO found that military service practices for developing program managers align extensively with four of the leading practices, as shown in the table below.

Leading Practices That All Military Services Align with Extensively

Leading practices

Air Force

Army

Navy

Training classes that allow program managers to share experiences

On-the-job learning and information repositories

Recognition

Assignment based on skills, experiences, and program needs

Legend: ● = extensive alignment ◑ = partial alignment ○ = little to no alignment

Source: GAO analysis of Department of Defense information. | GAO-18-217

At least one military service's practices do not align extensively with five of the leading practices, as shown in the table below.

Leading Practices That Not All Military Services Align with Extensively

Leading practices

Air Force

Army

Navy

Rotational assignments

Mentoring programs with senior leader involvement

Career paths that describe skills needed to advance

Education subsidies

Identification of high-potential talent by senior leaders

Legend: ● = extensive alignment ◑ = partial alignment ○ = little to no alignment

Source: GAO analysis of Department of Defense information. | GAO-18-217

For the remaining leading practice, none of the military services' practices align extensively, as shown in the table below.

Leading Practice That No Military Service Aligns with Extensively

Leading practice

Air Force

Army

Navy

Financial rewards for good performance

Legend: ● = extensive alignment ◑ = partial alignment ○ = little to no alignment

Source: GAO analysis of Department of Defense information. | GAO-18-217

Military service officials generally agreed with the assessments. More consistent alignment with leading practices—adapted for military and civilian personnel as appropriate and including greater use of existing financial rewards—would enhance the services' ability to manage acquisition programs.

Why GAO Did This Study

The Department of Defense's (DOD) major acquisition programs continue to experience cost and schedule overruns. GAO previously found that selecting skilled program managers is a key factor to achieving successful program outcomes. DOD relies on military and civilian program managers to deliver its most expensive new weapon systems, meaning its approach to training, mentoring, retaining, and selecting program managers is critical.

House Report 114-537 included a provision for GAO to review the career paths, development, and incentives for program managers. This report addresses how leading organizations train, mentor, retain, and ultimately select program managers; and the extent to which military service practices align with those leading practices. To conduct this work, GAO identified leading practices documented in prior work and by the Project Management Institute, and interviewed commercial companies identified by the Institute as leaders in this field. GAO also analyzed military service practices for developing program managers and compared those to leading practices.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making eight recommendations, including that the military services improve practices that do not align extensively with leading practices and make greater use of existing financial rewards for good performance. DOD concurred with the recommendations.

For more information, contact Michael J. Sullivan at (202) 512-4841 or sullivanm@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD concurred with this recommendation. Regarding selection, in October 2018 the Department of the Air Force implemented a program to identify and develop high-potential civilian personnel for program manager positions. Regarding retention, in February 2020, the Department of the Air Force identified the condition that in order for personnel to obtain student loan repayments, they must agree to complete three years of service with the Air Force.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Air Force should take steps to address areas of civilian and military program manager retention and selection that do not align extensively with leading practices. This could include using approaches already used by the other military services or commercial companies. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense: Department of the Air Force

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD concurred with this recommendation, and indicated the Department of the Air Force plans to increase its use of existing financial tools across the program management community. The Air Force recognizes notable achievements and superior acts or service through time off and cash awards. Each year since 2018, approximately 35 percent of the Air Force's program management workforce has received either time off or cash awards in this way.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Air Force should make greater use of existing financial mechanisms such as the Defense Acquisition Workforce Development Fund (DAWDF) to recognize high performers. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense: Department of the Air Force

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD concurred with this recommendation, and indicated the Department of the Air Force plans to increase its use of the AcqDemo tool across the program management community and the acquisition workforce as a whole. At the time of our report, 29 percent of the Air Force civilian program management workforce was covered by AcqDemo. As of May 2020, 36 percent was covered. Air Force officials noted that the primary barrier to further expansion was lack of agreement with bargaining units. However, 93 percent of the program management workforce not under a bargaining unit is now covered by AcqDemo, and the Air Force has received insights from the Army about its experience expanding coverage.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Air Force should identify lessons learned by the Army related to the Army's experience to extend coverage of the Civilian Acquisition Workforce Personnel Demonstration Project (AcqDemo) across the civilian program management workforce. (Recommendation 3)

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense: Department of the Air Force

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD concurred with this recommendation, and indicated the Department of the Army planned to improve its civilian and military program manager training, mentoring, and retention programs across the program management community and the acquisition workforce as a whole. In October 2019, DOD responded to GAO that the Army had taken steps to increase civilian participation in external industry exchange programs by leveraging a new DOD pilot program call the Industry Exchange Program (IEP). DOD stated that the Army currently had four Army civilians from the program management community that participated in a six-month fellowship at Booz Allen Hamilton or Deloitte in fiscal year 2019. An additional six civilians have been selected to participate in this program in fiscal year 2020. DOD also responded that the Army had taken steps to provide online resources for military service personnel in the program management career field similar to what it offers civilians in the career field. The Army's one page roadmap for military acquisition personnel now includes a link to the existing DOD acquisition competency tools, which is the same link as used in the Army civilian acquisition one-page roadmap. The tool, known as the Acquisition Workforce Qualification Initiative, can be used by people to identify and address gaps in their experience and capture demonstrated experience in a wide range of program management competencies, such as stakeholder management. People and their supervisors are encouraged to use this tool to develop individual career development plans. The tool also provides a common set of standards that organizations can use to mitigate skill gaps through hiring or using developmental opportunities.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Army should take steps to address areas of civilian and military program manager training, mentoring, and retention that do not align extensively with leading practices. This could include using approaches already used by the other military services or commercial companies. (Recommendation 4)

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense: Department of the Army

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD concurred with this recommendation, and indicated the Department of the Army planned to increase its use of existing financial tools such as DAWDF across the program management community and the acquisition workforce as a whole. In October 2019, DOD responded that the Army had taken steps to reserve at least 5 percent of the annual DAWDF program to address strategic initiatives focused on recognition and retention, or about $70 million to $80 million per year. Currently, the Army funds with DAWDF the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment annual monetary awards for Army program managers, the travel for Army program managers to attend the ceremony, the annual Army Acquisition Executive Excellence in Leadership Awards, the award ceremony, and the travel required to attend the award ceremony. DOD also stated that the Army will continue to use the Army Acquisition Workforce Human Capital Strategic Planning governance structure to find more and innovative ways to recognize high performing civilian acquisition professionals.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Army should make greater use of existing financial mechanisms such as DAWDF to recognize high performers. (Recommendation 5)

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense: Department of the Army

  6. Status: Open

    Comments: DOD concurred with this recommendation, and indicated the Department of the Navy plans to improve its civilian and military program manager training, mentoring, retention, and selection programs across the program management community and the acquisition workforce as a whole. Regarding training, in January 2019 the Navy sent its first cohort of participants to a DOD talent exchange program with industry, open to both civilian and military acquisition personnel, and including a focus on the program management workforce. Of the second Navy cohort that started in this program in early 2020, eight were civilians in the program management career field. Regarding mentoring, in October 2018 the Department of the Navy issued a program management career field guidebook that included career path roadmaps and descriptions of skills and competencies - such as mentoring individuals and teams - needed to advance for program management personnel across the Navy. Regarding selection, the Navy is developing a talent management system to enable talent identification, career development, and succession management across the acquisition workforce. A pilot of this system started in 2020, and includes the program management career field. The Navy expects to complete this pilot in fiscal year 2021, and to use data from the system to support the selection of key leadership positions including program managers and deputy program managers.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Navy should take steps to address areas of civilian and military program manager training, mentoring, retention, and selection that do not align extensively with leading practices. This could include using approaches already used by the other military services or commercial companies. (Recommendation 6)

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense: Department of the Navy

  7. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD concurred with this recommendation. Starting in 2019, monetary awards associated with the Navy's Acquisition Excellence Awards program were expanded to include civilian top nominees for Program Manager of the Year and Acquisition Professional of the Year, with award winners receiving $2,500 and top nominees receiving $1,000.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Navy should make greater use of existing financial mechanisms such as DAWDF to recognize high performers. (Recommendation 7)

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense: Department of the Navy

  8. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD concurred with this recommendation, and indicated the Department of the Navy planned to increase its use of the AcqDemo tool across the program management community and the acquisition workforce as a whole. The Department of the Navy implements AcqDemo through its systems commands, and each systems command works with the DOD AcqDemo program office to ensure consistency, share lessons learned, and implement new changes. We reported that at the end of fiscal year 2016, 38 percent of the Navy's program management workforce was covered by AcqDemo. As of December 2019, that number increased to 46 percent and an additional 33 percent of this workforce was covered by other pay demonstration projects, with 20 percent covered by the General Schedule.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Navy should identify lessons learned by the Army related to the Army's experience to extend coverage of AcqDemo across the civilian program management workforce. (Recommendation 8)

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense: Department of the Navy

 

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