They don't teach you at Harvard Business School how to buy toilet seats for less than $640. That was the price Lockheed-California originally charged the Navy for toilet seats for P3 Orion submarine-hunting planes.
The time for Harvard Business School to offer a brain-testing course like Toilet Seat Procurement 101 may have arrived. John F. Lehman Jr., the secretary of the Navy, has announced that naval officers -- including 100 admirals -- will soon be sent to places like Harvard to acquire management skills to defend against the first-strike capabilities of military contractors.
The bad news equivalent of a nuclear winter has recently hit the Pentagon. Wipeout disclosures about waste and fraud suggest that military contractors, the nation's most brazen cost-padders, are not content with snookering Pentagon officials with only the billion-dollar big-ticket weapons that don't work or cost triple or quadruple the first estimate. Through-the-roof prices on the small items -- toilet seats, coffeemakers, screwdrivers -- are also great sport.
Lehman, along with the new tough cookie at the Department of Education, William Bennett, is a back-to-basics man. But how basic must you get? Is Harvard Business School necessary to educate Lehman's admirals about scams so large that only an elephant in a phone booth would be harder to notice?
A check with Harvard reveals that the Navy has already been sending its officers to the business school. A spokesman reports that the Navy is the military's heaviest user of a 13-week advanced management program. Battleship commanders, senior captains and others with admiral potential have been enrolled in the program, as well as getting MBA degrees.
The cost for the 13-week course is $20,000, a sum well above the most expensive college tuition for a full year. The first theme paper that Lehman's admirals ought to write is why Harvard is charging the government $20,000. After swabbing that deck, they can ease into an MBA thesis on the sales tactics of Lockheed's toilet-seat salesmen.
Lehman's pushing of business skills has the appearance of being an unofficial court martial of bad behavior. It is also something of a pose. Even if the admirals come back to the Pentagon as experts in procurement they are still part of the fellowship of the contracting community. The employment flow between the Pentagon and corporations is so thick that no adversarial relationship is likely to thrive.
The worse problem is that Congress and administrations have built into the Pentagon the kinds of conflict of interest that are common to many Washington departments. The Interior Department, for example, is in charge of both leasing and protecting public land. Under James Watt, the leasers routed the protectors.
A flawed system of procurement is likely to plague the Pentagon until public officials outside the department are empowered to contain the money lusts of the contractors. Independence is the twin of aggressiveness.
Lehman has his posing; so does Congress. A few of its members blow the whistle on waste and pretend they are sounding the very trumpet of Gabriel to drive the devil contractors into darkness. They generate the same kind of publicity that Lehman won last week. Reforms are promised, the caught-in-the-act contractors send back part of the money they scammed and Caspar Weinberger soldiers on toward his goal of rearming America.
A way exists to show seriousness about the military getting its money's worth. In 1984, Congress passed legislation creating the independent Operational Test and Evaluation office in the Department of Defense. Its functions include the testing of weapons to assure that the machinery of war has at least a fighting chance of working under battlefield conditions. Tanks are tested to see if they can travel 10 miles or so without falling apart, airplanes to learn if the wings stay put during flight.
Until the legislation, too many of these technicalities were left to the manufacturers to test. Sen. David Pryor (D-Ark.) was one of the few to see the wrongness of that arrangement. When Pryor first introduced his bill several years ago, he could find no cosponsors. After a year in existence and funded for $10 million, the office has no director. Is filling a job slot another one of those deep mysteries that the Pentagon can't solve without help from Harvard?