Last week, the Department of Defense sent data to Congress on the size and cost of its contractor workforce. According to Politico, the Pentagon reported that it spent approximately $131 billion in fiscal year 2014 on 641,428 contractors. The latter number is down somewhat from the approximately 670,000 contractors the Pentagon employed in fiscal year 2012. Both numbers are still astounding though, even by the standards of the world’s largest bureaucracy.
That the Department of Defense employs such a large number of contractors, private companies that provide goods and services for the department, is no secret. The cost and effectiveness of contractors are less well understood. The Pentagon’s reliance on them contributes to a pernicious form of cronyism that Johns Hopkins political scientist Steve Teles dubs “kludgeocracy.” According to Teles,
A “kludge” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “an ill-assorted collection of parts assembled to fulfill a particular purpose… a clumsy but temporarily effective solution to a particular fault or problem.” The term comes out of the world of computer programming, where a kludge is an inelegant patch put in place to solve an unexpected problem and designed to be backward-compatible with the rest of an existing system. When you add up enough kludges, you get a very complicated program that has no clear organizing principle, is exceedingly difficult to understand, and is subject to crashes. Any user of Microsoft Windows will immediately grasp the concept.
“Clumsy but temporarily effective” also describes much of American public policy today. To see policy kludges in action, one need look no further than the mind-numbing complexity of the health-care system (which even Obamacare’s champions must admit has only grown more complicated under the new law, even if in their view the system is now also more just), or our byzantine system of funding higher education, or our bewildering federal-state system of governing everything from welfare to education to environmental regulation. America has chosen to govern itself through more indirect and incoherent policy mechanisms than can be found in any comparable country.
Teles argues that kludgeocracy hides the true cost of government from scrutiny, encourages rent-seeking, and increases the complexity of public policy to the point that real democratic oversight becomes impossible. One of the leading causes of kludgeocracy is the outsourcing of government responsibilities to private contractors and consultants. Outsourcing often serves the immediate interests of politicians on both sides of the aisle, but the practice is a net negative for conservatives and liberals alike. For conservatives, outsourcing tends to obscure the true size and scope of the government. For liberals, the “clumsy” implementation of policy by contractors weakens trust in the competence of the government to provide the public goods and services liberals want.
According to Teles, the Department of Defense is a prime exemplar of kludgeocracy. The data reported to Congress last week suggests he is right. Teles recommends that the Pentagon is an excellent place to begin chipping away at the American kludgeocracy:
The growth of the private military over the last few decades has been explosive, and congressional efforts at deficit reduction have put the Pentagon’s budget on the chopping block. Increasing the salaries of high-level federal workers throughout the government and reducing caps on their numbers could also go hand in hand with drastically cutting the amounts that agencies can spend on consultants and contractors.
As we have discussed previously in this space, there is an ongoing effort to reduce the number of non-contractor civilian employees at the Department of Defense. The Pentagon workforce increased dramatically after September 11, 2001, and it is widely agreed that it needs to be pared back in order to free up funds for military readiness and force modernization. However, if Teles is correct, reductions in civilian employees may lead to a further increase in the use of contractors, and merely further entrench the Pentagon kludgeocracy in the process.
According to Department of Defense data, spending on civilian pay increased 31 percent in real terms between 2001 and 2015. So there is a good argument to be made in favor of reducing the size of the Pentagon’s civilian bureaucracy. However, the Pentagon needs to carefully examine the roles and responsibilities of those it might let go, and the capacities of those who will remain, if it is to avoid filling the voids with contractors. A similar swapping-out of government employees for contractors occurred in the 1990s when the post-Cold War drawdown, combined with across-the-board government workforce reductions, dramatically shrank the number of civilians employed at the Pentagon. When the need later arose for increased manpower, and civilian employees were unavailable, the government turned to contractors. As Time noted in 2013, when problems with contractors began to crop up, even more contractors were brought in to provide oversight.
Reductions in the Department of Defense civilian workforce need to be a part of the discussion when looking to find savings in the defense budget. However, the role of contractors needs to be part of that discussion as well. Otherwise, as Teles explains, the Pentagon’s kludgeocracy is likely to grow, and the problems of government through ad hoc shadow bureaucracy—shoddy implementation, lack of effective oversight, and the growth the rent-seeking “private” sector—will deepen.