Defense Technology Development:

Technology Transition Programs Support Military Users, but Opportunities Exist to Improve Measurement of Outcomes

GAO-13-286: Published: Mar 7, 2013. Publicly Released: Mar 7, 2013.

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What GAO Found

GAO identified 20 technology transition programs--managed by the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and the military departments--that provide structured mechanisms and funding to facilitate technology transition. All of the programs GAO reviewed are consistent in providing opportunities to transition technologies from the science and technology (S&T) environment to a user, such as a weapon system acquisition program or the warfighter in the field. To help speed the delivery of technologies to users, most transition programs target fairly mature technologies, which are suitable for final stages of development and demonstration. Collectively, the programs GAO reviewed obligated about $7.9 billion in Department of Defense (DOD) research, development, test, and evaluation funding for fiscal years 2010 through 2012 to support technology transition.

Most programs that GAO assessed track whether their projects were completed and successfully transitioned to intended users. On average, programs reported a historical transition rate of over 70 percent for projects. The vast majority of these projects resulted in technologies transitioning to acquisition programs or directly to the warfighter. However, about one-quarter of the projects transitioned to other organizations, such as test and evaluation centers, for further development. Prior GAO work found that tracking technology transitions and the impact of those transitions, such as cost savings or deployment of the technology in a product, provides key feedback that can inform the management of programs. For the most part, transition programs that GAO reviewed do not track projects beyond transition, which limits their ability to know and report final outcomes for transitioned technologies and the associated benefits realized from those technologies.

As GAO has reported in the past, effective selection and management processes as well as tools are needed to ensure that new technologies can be successfully transitioned to military users. GAO found that OSD's and the Military Departments' technology transition programs make use of these practices to varying degrees. Most programs have formal review processes to determine whether candidate projects have sufficiently mature technologies, are in demand by users, and have schedules and costs that fit within the programs' criteria. Once selected, projects require effective management to ensure risks are minimized and transition commitments are confirmed. Many program officials indicated that regular stakeholder communication during project execution is important to ensure projects stay on track and transition commitments are sustained. Moreover, many program officials identified the use of formal management tools, such as technology transition agreements, as key mechanisms to help hold stakeholders accountable and facilitate technology transition.

Why GAO Did This Study

DOD and Congress recognize that technology innovation sometimes moves too slowly from the lab to the field. Programs have been created in DOD to help facilitate the transition of new technologies. The conference report accompanying the fiscal year 2012 National Defense Authorization Act directed GAO to undertake a body of work that will provide a holistic assessment of DOD's S&T enterprise. This report reflects the results from GAO's first review, which focuses on technology transition. Generally, when technologies have been sufficiently matured in the S&T environment, the technologies are available to transition to a military user. GAO's specific objectives were to (1) determine what DOD programs are dedicated to facilitating technology transition, (2) assess the outcomes of these transition programs, and (3) identify practices among the programs that may facilitate technology transition. GAO conducted interviews with and collected information from each technology transition program to identify their selection, management, and assessment practices, as well as project outcomes.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that DOD require programs to track and measure project outcomes to document transition results and benefits from transition, as well as assess programs to identify opportunities for more widespread use of existing transition management tools. DOD generally concurred with these recommendations and stated that it will initiate actions to address potential opportunities for improvement identified in the report.

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Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: In commenting on GAO's recommendation, DOD was concerned that tracking and measuring outcomes for hundreds of technology projects would be a labor-intensive and very time-consuming process. The Department indicated it would continue to anecdotally measure the results of technology investments for 3, 5, or even 10 years after investment and highlight the long-term benefits, as needed, to validate the investment levels associated with the research and development programs. ASD(R&E) subsequently directed each of the military services to deliver their first annual "Laboratory Metrics and Assessment Report", which provides details of the technology transition activities from the previous fiscal year (fiscal year 2014 will be the first year for which information is collected) of each of the military service's corporate S&T labs as well as their engineering centers. The information provided is expected to serve as the baseline against which future performance will be measured. The report is not expected to be issued until fall 2015. Additionally, the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, in a continuing effort to increase the fidelity of lab metrics and showcase the productivity of the in-house laboratory system, tasked several Program Executive Offices to lead the measurement of lab return on investment in fiscal year 2015 as part of the department's Better Buying Power 3.0 initiative. This task is intended to address technology transition and begin a detailed study of the processes involved with the transition of laboratory developed technology products into advanced development programs hosted by industry. These processes are of interest to the Department, as many of these products are delivered to the military customer via acquisition programs of record.

    Recommendation: To improve visibility and management of the department's efforts to transition technologies to support the needs of the warfighter, the Secretary of Defense should require that all technology transition programs track and measure project outcomes, to include not only whether technologies transitioned to an intended user but also the longer-term impact of whether the technologies benefitted acquisition programs or military users in the field.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: In response to GAO's recommendations, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering (ASD(R&E)) tasked each of the military service science and technology (S&T) executives with formal reporting requirements at the annual S&T Program Objectives Memorandum Review and the annual S&T Program Review. At these events, the S&T executives highlight major technology transition achievements along with planned transitions for the upcoming fiscal year. These public reporting requirements afford each of the military services and agencies represented insight into each other's technology transition programs and associated best practices. ASD(R&E) emphasized that the Navy's Future Naval Capabilities program, which GAO noted in its report uses a variety of useful transition management tools like technology transition agreements and transition commitment level measurements, remains the benchmark program that other military services and agencies can learn from and measure their performance against. ASD(R&E) also pointed to the 17 Communities of Interest (COI) that have been established to ensure widest dissemination of information on technology transition activities. Each COI is expected to coordinate and integrate DOD's technology research and development, including technology transition.

    Recommendation: To improve visibility and management of the department's efforts to transition technologies to support the needs of the warfighter, the Secretary of Defense should assess transition programs to identify opportunities for more widespread use of existing transition management tools, such as technology transition agreements and technology commitment level evaluation mechanisms.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense


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