Why The Pentagon Can’t Count: It’s Time to Reinvent the Audit

This article previously appeared in War on the Rocks.

In the past, headlines about the Pentagon failing its financial audit again would never have caught my attention. But having been in the middle of this conversation when I served on one of the Defense Department’s advisory boards, I understand why the Pentagon can’t count. The experience taught me a valuable lesson about innovation and imagination in large organizations, and the difference visionary leadership – or the lack of it – can make.

With audit costs approaching a billion dollars a year the Pentagon had an opportunity to lead in modernizing auditing. Instead it opted for more of the same.

Auditing the Department of Defense
By law, the Department of Defense has to provide Congress and the public with an assessment of where it spends its money and to provide transparency of its operations. A financial audit counts what the Department of Defense has, where it has it, and if they know where its money is being spent.

Auditing the Department of Defense is a massive undertaking. For one thing, it is the country’s largest employer, with 2.9 million people (1.3 million on active duty, 800,000 in the reserve components, and 770,000 civilians.) The audit has to count the location and condition of every piece of military equipment, property, inventory, and supplies. And there are a lot of them. The department has 643,900 assets, from buildings, to pipelines, roads, and fences located on over 4,860 sites, as well as 19,700 aircraft and over 290 battle force ships. To complicate the audit, the department has 326 different and separate financial management systems, 4,700 data warehouses and over 10,000 different and disconnected data management systems.

(BTW, just like in the private sector, financial audits and audits of contracts are separate. While the DoD Office of Inspector General is responsible for these financial audits of trillions of dollars of assets and liabilities, the Defense Contract Audit Agency is responsible for auditing the hundreds of billions of dollars of acquisition contracts. They have the same issues.)

This is the fifth year the Department has undergone a financial statement audit – and failed it. The audit was not a trivial effort, it required 1,600 auditors – 1,450 from public accounting firms and 150 from the Office of Inspector General. In 2019, the audit cost $428 million in auditing costs ($186 million to the auditors along with $242 million to audit support) and another $472 million to fix the issues the audit discovered.

Let’s Invent the Future of Audit
The Defense of Department’s 40-plus advisory boards are staffed by outsiders who can provide independent perspectives and advice. I sat on one of these boards, and our charter was to leverage private sector lessons to improve audit quality.

With defense spending on auditing approaching a billion dollars a year, it was clear it would take a decade or more to catch up to the audit standards of private companies. But no single company or even entire industry was spending this much money on auditing. And remarkably, the Defense Department seemed intent on doing the same thing year after year, just with more people and with a few more tools and processes to get incrementally better. It dawned on me that if we tried to look over the horizon, the department could audit faster, cheaper, and more effectively by inventing the future tools and techniques rather than repeating the past.

Nothing in our charter asked the advisory board to invent the future. But I found myself asking, “What if we could?” What if we could provide the defense department with new technology, new approaches to auditing, analytics practices, audit research, and standards, all while creating audit and data management research and a new generation of finance applications and vendors?

The Pentagon Once Led Business Innovation
I reminded my fellow advisory board members that in 1959, at the dawn of the computer age, the Defense Department was the largest user of computers for business applications.

However, there was no common business programing language. So rather than wait for one, the Defense Department led the effort to create one – the COBOL programming language. And 20 years later, it did the same for the ADA programming language.

With that history in mind, I proposed we lead again. And that we start an initiative for the 5th generation of audit practices (the Audit 5.0 Initiative) with machine learning, predictive analytics, Intelligent sampling and predictions. This initiative would also include automating ETL, predictive analytics, fraud detection, and a new generation of audit standards.

I pointed out that this program wouldn’t need more funds since the Department of Defense could allocate 10% of the $428M we were spending on auditors and fund SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) programs in auditing/data management/finance to generate 5-10 new startups in this space each year. Simultaneously we could fund academic research, to incentivize research on Machine Learning as applied to Audit 5.0 challenges in finance, auditing and data management.

In addition, we could create new audit standards by working with existing government audit standards bodies such as (The Generally Accepted Government Auditing Standards (GAGAS), Yellow Book, the GAO’s Standards for Internal Control in the Federal Government, Green Book and the Federal Accounting Standards Advisory Board (FASAB). We could collaborate with civilian audit standard bodies (ASB (Auditing Standards Board) and PCAOB (Public Company Accounting Oversight Board). Working together, the defense department could create the next generation of machine-driven and semiautomated standards. Furthermore, it could help the Independent Public Accounting firms (KPMG, EY, PwC, Deloitte, et al) create a new practice and make them partners in the Audit 5.0 initiative.

By investing 10 percent of the existing auditing budget over the next few years, these activities would create a defense audit center of excellence that would fund academic centers for advanced audit research, standup “future of audit” programs that would create new 5-10 startups each year, be the focal point for government an industry finance and audit standards, and create public-private partnerships rather than mandates.

Spinning up these activities up would dramatically reduce the department’s audit costs, standardize its financial management environment, and provide confidence in their budget, auditability, and transparency. And as a bonus, it would create a new generation of finance, audit and data management startups, funded by private capital.

The Road Not Taken
I was in awe of my fellow advisory board members. They had spent decades in senior roles in finance and accounting in both the public and private sectors. Yet, when I pitched this idea, they politely listened to what I had to say and then moved on to their agenda – providing the DoD with Incremental improvements.

At the time I was disappointed, but not surprised. An advisory board is only as good as what it’s being chartered and staffed to do. If they are being asked to provide a 10 percent incremental advice, they’ll do so. But if they’re asked for revolutionary i.e. 10x advice, they can change the world. But that requires a different charter, leadership, people, innovation, and imagination.

In the end, the Department of Defense, the largest purchaser of accounting services in the world, whiffed a chance to be the leader in creating the next generation of audit tools and services, not only for financial audits, but for the hundreds of billions of dollars of acquisition contracts the Defense Contract Audit Agency audits. By now the department could have audit tools driven by machine learning algorithms, ferreting out fraud by vendors or contractors and anticipating programs that are at risk.

Lessons Learned

  • If you only get what you ask for you haven’t hired people with imagination
    • America’s defense leaders ought to ask and act for transformational, contrarian and disruptive advice
    • And ensure they have the will and organizations to act on it
  • Move requests for advice for incremental improvements to the consulting firms that currently serve the Defense Department
  • Defense leaders need to consider whether spending a billion dollars a year for an audit is causing the department to become appreciably more efficient or better managed
    • Or whether there might be a better way

5 Responses

  1. Steve,
    Thanks for sharing this so openly. I wonder/hope this transparency may create internal and external pressure on organisation to be more innovative/cost efficient. I guess they can always say there is a war going on but that could have been said during the era’s of leading which you allude to.

  2. Bravo Steve! An eye-opener, indeed – and the most tantalizing advice I read in years. What a rare pleasure it was to read your words of wisdom… My comments are listed below:

    • Imagination – yes, imagination is the key. This is why I’m quoting Albert Einstein for years. He said: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution”…

    • Costs – as stratospheric as they are, I believe that good CEOs work hard on reducing COSTS and increasing REVENUES. However, great CEOs know how to turn COSTS into PROFIT centers. I did so with Verizon in the past and recently recommended a similar strategy to Elon Musk. DOD can benefit the most by accepting the fact that Business Model Innovation is as important as Technology Innovation – because it is…

    • 10 Percent Set Aside Rule – Exactly! I also recommended a 10% carve-out in my LinkedIn post: “Reinventing GovR&D”. But I took it a bit further and suggested how the governments can make money on the R&D – instead of just writing the checks…

    Taking a hard look at all the ways we can help boost the defenses hasn’t been as important in the last 80 years as it is today. When Herr Putin now resembles Herr Hitler and the Chinese ambitions for world dominance are getting bolder by the hour – it is time to put our heads together and help Western Democracies with vigor and conviction…

  3. Dear Steve, once again you perfectly demonstrate that adopting an innovation point of view doesn’t result from logical analysis and requires to exit from our comfort zone. Your peers in this Advisory Board didn’t even want to give 30 sec of their time to assess your suggestion. Another learned lesson is that people in power position tend to spend their energy on keeping their position, hence rejecting anything that could modify their ecosystem.

  4. Why not focus the innovation on building better internal control and management processes within the Pentagon, to facilitate better control and reporting of accounting information ? It seems like trying to innovate the audit process, while operating the same old systems is not going to maximize benefits to taxpayers. Having cleaner, less complex, more effective financial management systems, provide better insight into the actual operations, and better management control, might result in even greater cost savings. And better systems and internal control, would, by itself , reduce audit costs through reusable audit processes across different financial segments and less labor time resolving exceptions.

  5. What an eye opener and great opportunities there! DoD has the resources and needs to lead again in transformative innovation.

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