The Washington Post

Keeping track of DOD weapons programs for Congress

( Kelly Kirschner/Partnership for Public Service )

As Congress monitors the development and roll out of complex multi-billion dollar weapons systems, it relies heavily on Paul Francis, the managing director of a Government Accountability Office (GAO) team who has spent almost four decades providing detailed information, insights and recommendations on defense programs to lawmakers and the Pentagon.

“The scrutiny Paul and his team bring to these issues has resulted in billions of dollars in financial benefits to the U.S. government every year,” said Tim Bowling, GAO’s chief quality officer. “As a result of his analysis and audits, Congress and the Department of Defense have taken actions to improve programs, change funding levels and increase accountability over government expenditures.”

Last year alone, Bowling said, the GAO estimates there were $13.4 billion in financial benefits to the taxpayer as result of the work of Francis’ team.

One major endeavor undertaken by Francis has been the examination of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, DOD’s most costly and ambitious aircraft acquisition. The program is developing and fielding aircraft for the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and eight international partners, with the investment nearing $400 billion to develop and procure 2,457 aircraft through 2037.

In large part because of GAO’s findings, the F-35 program has been extensively restructured during to address cost, schedule and performance problems. The GAO team under Francis’ direction has made numerous recommendations to improve outcomes.

Francis also oversaw rigorous GAO inquiries into the Army’s Future Combat Systems (FCS) program, which was scrapped by the Pentagon in 2009 after an investment of more than $200 billion. The system, which comprised a number of integrated air, ground, manned and unmanned vehicles and weapons systems, turned out not to meet U.S. defense needs as originally envisioned, and according to GAO reports, was riddled with poor planning  and enormous cost overruns.  

Francis and his auditors found that as deadlines were approaching, critical technologies needed to make the various systems work were not ready, software development was still in the early stages and the information network central to the whole plan was years from being demonstrated.

“We helped save the government a lot of money on that project,” said Francis.

Francis, who manages a staff of 170 people, said he sees his role as determining whether the government is getting what it is paying for, whether requirements for contractors are well defined and whether DOD is “buying the right things in the right way.”

He said he also looks at how the military arrives at its costs estimates and whether they are accurate. He examines technology, design and production processes, looks at how testing is being done on new weapons systems and seeks to ensure that proper management controls are in place.

“We lay out the facts and help to inform the debate,” said Francis.

Besides informing Congress, Francis said his job is to help the Pentagon do a better job. He said he tries to lay out private sector benchmarks that can provide guidance for how to acquire weapons systems and manage projects. In addition, Francis said he asks his investigators to always try to understand "why good people are not getting better results" so that they can offer constructive advice on how to put programs and managers in a position to succeed.

“I want to ensure that our analysts keep in mind that the people whose programs we assess are well-intended and hardworking, and that the right challenge for the thoughtful analyst is to figure out why good people are not getting good outcomes,” said Francis.

Bowling said his GAO colleague provides “a very effective blend of experience, knowledge of the issues, technical skills and a great personal sensitivity to dealing with others.”

“He is able to bring out the best in his employees—a valued trait in a team-oriented institution like GAO—and his knowledge of the issues has gained him great respect on Capitol Hill,” said Bowling.

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and Go to to read about other federal workers who are making a difference.

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