Cover: Reimagining Defense Advisory Boards

Reimagining Defense Advisory Boards

Lessons Learned for Leaders in the U.S. Department of Defense

Published Feb 9, 2022

by Cortney Weinbaum, Diana Y. Myers, William Shelton

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Research Questions

  1. How can DoD reap increased benefits from boards of external advisers?
  2. What are lessons learned from previous defense advisory boards?
  3. Which types of problems facing DoD are well-suited for external advisers?
  4. How do boards of external advisers fit within DoD's decisionmaking system?

On January 30, 2021, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin halted all the U.S. Department of Defense's (DoD's) external advisory boards and committees. In a letter issued that day, he ordered a "zero-based review" of all such boards. In this report, RAND Corporation researchers detail an exploratory study to reveal lessons learned for how DoD can improve its advisory boards. The authors conducted 16 interviews with current and former DoD officials to learn what worked well, what could be enhanced or dispensed with, and how boards might be reconfigured. The result is a set of findings and recommendations regarding how defense advisory boards are formed, designed, and structured; how DoD selects the chair and members of each board; how DoD could implement a diversity mindset on advisory boards and what the benefits are of doing so; and approaches for overcoming administrative and bureaucratic challenges. This report provides lessons learned and recommendations for defense leaders and officials.

Key Findings

  • The authors' research revealed that the structure of a DoD advisory board — the design of its charter, the relationship with senior DoD officials, the selection of members, and the choice of projects — should be designed to meet the board's underlying goals.
  • An ideal defense advisory board project topic is an issue the Secretary is deeply invested in addressing, one DoD cannot solve on its own, and one specific enough so board members understand what is asked of them.
  • Prioritizing diversity involves including groups that have historically been excluded from national security decisionmaking and examining projects through how their recommendations will affect different groups unevenly.
  • The board chair establishes the culture of the board and should possess the management skills to lead a diverse board and create a culture of inclusivity.
  • Successful boards need to overcome bureaucratic challenges, including administrative processes imposed by DoD.


  • Perform an analysis of alternatives of approaches to develop a repeatable process for seating multidisciplinary boards infused with individuals external to DoD. This could result in changes to existing recruitment processes or implementing new technical solutions (e.g., a public-facing website for self-nominations), or any combination thereof.
  • Select chairs who are enthusiastic about engaging across echelons of DoD and who excel at building rapport across diverse teams. These chairs would demonstrate a willingness to listen to all stakeholders and carefully consider these inputs in the context of the board topic.
  • Use membership balance plans to address diversity across historically excluded groups and gender.
  • Include in board charters a requirement to consider how the board's recommendations may create uneven effects across different demographics.
  • Create a mechanism for a board to go on hiatus if the Secretary or senior sponsor does not want to engage the board. This creates a mechanism to "turn boards on and off" rather than keeping them operating under a disinterested senior leader. This mechanism should consider congressional and presidential equities as appointment authorities.
  • Conduct a review of DoD's implementation of the Federal Advisory Committee Act to minimize hurdles and mitigate administrative bureaucracy.
  • Increase use of subcommittees to access larger pools of talent.

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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