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Holding the Government Accountable

Decoding the Pentagon

Okay, so maybe the bean counters at the Pentagon aren't lying outright to Congress, but they sure do know how to send over reports that make real bad numbers only look a little bad—or sometimes not bad at all. In so many words, that's the essence of a new report released by the Government Accountability Office entitled, “Defense Acquisitions: Information for Congress on Performance of Major Programs Can Be More Complete, Timely and Accessible.”

GAO often does some bang up reports, but it tends to give them titles that are bland and devoid of controversy. A better title for this one might have been, “Defense Acquisitions: Information for Congress on Performance of Major Programs Shows the Trees, But Not the Forest.”

“DOD does present Congress with valuable information about a program's performance by comparing the latest unit cost estimate against the most recently approved baseline,” the report concludes. “However, this provides only one perspective on performance because rebaselining shortens the period of performance reported and resets the measurement of cost growth to zero. Other meaningful perspectives are not reported.”

Here's how the game works: For example, DOD's 2003 Selected Acquisition Reports (SAR) notes that the F/A-22 Raptor program's unit cost decreased by 0.33 percent in the previous 4 months. It failed to show that the program's unit cost had cumulatively increased by 72 percent in the last 143 months.

Likewise, the DOD reported in the 2003 SAR that unit cost for the Stryker Armored vehicle program increased by 1.34 percent in the 2 months the previous quarter's report. It didn't show that the program increased by 21 percent over the past 12 months.

And here's another problem with the Pentagon's reporting system, according to the report. “DOD classifies about 50 percent of the SARs it submits to Congress, despite the fact that only a small amount of data in each of them is actually classified,” the report says. This does not allow congressional staffers without security clearances to look at the data. Which means congressional oversight of the Pentagon's adherence to established cost and schedule baselines is “unnecessarily constrained,” according to GAO.

Okay, so maybe some of you don't find the fact that the Pentagon tries to keep Congress in the dark as particularly shocking.

The sad fact is that with military budgets growing at a quickening pace, now, more than ever, Congress needs all the info and data it can get to make hard fiscal choices.