George Mason’s government contracting center is helping the Pentagon enter the 21st century

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Jerry McGinn
Jerry McGinn

When the Pentagon attempts to field innovative technology, its contracting decisions are largely dictated by a process that predates personal computing. Known as the Planning, Programming, Budgeting and Execution (PPBE) resourcing system, it betrays its mid-20th-century origins in its extreme emphasis on long-range management and sequential planning over more agile and rapid program execution.

Calls for PPBE reform are nothing new in the halls of the Pentagon, but recent geopolitical threats have contributed to a general recognition within the federal government that change is badly needed to speed the development and acquisition of new military capabilities. 

Hence Congress’s formation in 2022 of an independent commission tasked with closely assessing the current process and making specific recommendations for reform.

The Commission on PPBE Reform promptly engaged the Greg and Camille Baroni Center for Government Contracting at the Donald G. Costello College of Business at George Mason University as a key research partner. The center was awarded a $645,000 Department of Defense (DoD) research contract consisting of two projects.

First, the research team, headed by the center’s executive director Jerry McGinn, prepared six case studies documenting PPBE’s effect on DoD’s work with both research and development centers and industry to develop and adopt new technologies. 

“We set up hypotheses and did background research on the programs,” McGinn says. “Our conclusions were based on a number of interviews with government and industry officials.”

For example, one of the case studies dealt with the Air Force’s Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) program, for the development of AI-piloted combat drones. Five Air Force officials involved in CCA told the Baroni research team that PPBE complicated necessary collaborations with the Navy and other agencies, due to siloed budgeting protocols making it difficult to align priorities and make resource decisions in a timely manner. 

Next, the Baroni research team turned their attention to three inter-related subtasks delving into specific rules governing PPBE’s application. 

“For this project, we used a mixture of non-public DoD unclassified databases as well as information available to the general public,” says McGinn.

The researchers investigated whether PPBE should vary based on DoD’s acquisition categories or remain the same for all categories, concluding that the categories were similar enough to warrant a unified process. They were also asked to evaluate how military departments and agencies use PPBE’s various acquisition pathways, resulting in a determination that “budget justification documents, particularly for RDT&E (research, development, testing and evaluation), are overly complex, unnecessarily intricate, and lack standardization”. Finally, the researchers performed an extensive analysis of PPBE’s legal underpinnings and the wider governmental implications of reforming the process.

The team’s final report, submitted to the commission early in 2024, contained a consolidated list of dozens of findings and recommendations. In its own report issued in March 2024, the PPBE Reform Commission cited the Baroni team’s research numerous times.

“Our work played a large role in informing the Commission’s findings and reinforcing their policy recommendations,” McGinn noted. “These inputs are today being considered as Congress debates 2025 appropriations and DoD concurrently develops and vets the budget for 2026 and 2027.

Shortly after the release of the Commission’s report, the Greg and Camille Baroni Center for Government Contracting hosted a rollout event at Mason Square featuring the Commission’s chair, vice-chair and executive director. A series of additional events around PPBE reform are being planned for the summer.

“Our report reflects the strategic vision with which George Mason established this research center. Our research and analysis inform the federal government as well as the large government contracting industry here in the national capital region. Our relationships and location make the center uniquely situated to benefit policy-makers and entrepreneurs, alike,” McGinn says.