The Department of Defense has made progress on a number of acquisition reforms that Congress has pushed for in previous National Defense Authorization Acts, a June 6 government watchdog report said. However, more details on program oversight are needed to determine how successful those reform efforts will be.

In a new report titled “DOD Acquisition Reform: Leadership Attention Needed to Effectively Implement Changes to Acquisition Oversight,” the Government Accountability Office (GAO) expressed satisfaction with some of the department’s efforts to implement suggested reforms. But it also noted that some issues – such as the roles and responsibilities of different offices for acquisition oversight – could still use some work.

Aerial of the Pentagon, the Department of Defense headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, near Washington DC, with I-395 freeway on the left, and the Air Force Memorial up middle.

The Defense Department has successfully shifted oversight and decision-making authority of numerous major programs down from the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) to military departments. The GAO report noted that in 2012, 39 major defense acquisition programs had OSD as the decision-making authority and 44 were decided at the service level; by March 2019, only nine programs maintained OSD-level decision-making authority while 80 programs were evaluated at the military department level.

But the department could provide further clarity on the roles and responsibilities of OSD and the military departments for acquisition oversight. The GAO report highlights “disagreements” about oversight roles and responsibilities between the two Pentagon offices, the result being that the department is “at risk of not achieving an effective balance between oversight and accountability and efficient program management.”

Still, the department must better inform Congress on how it plans to oversee new “middle-tier acquisition” efforts for capabilities that are expected to be fielded within two to five years. Congress granted new authorities in the fiscal years 2016 and 2017 NDAAs for the services to use for these types of programs, and 35 unclassified programs are currently using them. Twenty-four are in the Air Force, eight are in the Army and three in the Navy.

The department must identify the types of information it needs to select and oversee those middle-tiered acquisition programs consistently, the GAO said. “DoD is not well positioned to ensure that these programs – some of which are multibillion-dollar acquisitions – are likely to meet expectations for delivering prototypes or capability to the warfighter quickly,” the report said.

The GAO made four recommendations in its report, and noted that the Defense Department agreed with all four and described plans to address them. Those recommendations include having the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment direct decisionmakers to consider the “soundness of programs’ business cases” for middle-tier acquisition programs, including whether those programs are positioned to meet statutory objectives.

The watchdog agency also recommended that the undersecretary identify the metrics that will be used to assess the performance of middle-tier acquisition programs across the military departments –  including whether they are meeting those statutory objectives – and that the secretary of defense build a framework that clarifies the role of OSD and the military departments in acquisition oversight, and communicates that framework to senior leadership.

Finally, the secretary of defense should build a plan for how the department will assess the effect of more recent acquisition reforms, and identify who will be responsible for the assessment and what data will be needed.