WASHINGTON ― Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan agrees with the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee that changes are needed in the Pentagon’s civilian workforce ― but disagreed on the root cause of the department’s infamous high costs and slow speeds.

“It’s not a people issue. People are the solution, not the problem,” Patrick Shanahan said Tuesday. “It’s our processes, not our people.”

On April 17, Rep. Mac Thornberry, the Texas republican who chairs the HASC, unveiled a sweeping proposal targeting the Pentagon’s so-called “fourth estate” agencies, which are supported by 200,000 civilian personnel and 600,000 contractors, at a cost of more than $100 billion per year. That proposal that would eliminate seven agencies inside the department and impose a 25 percent personnel cut in many others, with execution completed by Jan. 1, 2021.

The proposal has a ways to go before it becomes law, and has already seen some opposition from Thornberry’s democratic counterpart on the HASC, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington. But even a watered down version of the cuts could have a dramatic impact on the Pentagon’s workforce.

Shanahan made it clear he has yet to dive into the details of Thornberry’s concept, and when asked, he denied there was any tension between his stance and the HASC chairman’s. But the deputy’s comments indicated a willingness to look for savings in ways other than mandatory personnel cuts.

Speaking to reporters at a Defense Writers’ Group breakfast, Shanahan argued that “people are stuck in processes that aren’t very productive, not as productive as they could be.” This leaves individuals with their hands tied and unable to do their jobs as effectively as they would like to, even if they have the best of intentions, he said.

“There’s this assumption that there’s all these people standing around with their hands in their pocket and not working hard. I think what we find is, we have processes and management systems and IT systems that have evolved over years and years but were never designed to scale to the size that we are,” he said.

Solving that problem is a top goal of Chief Management Officer Jay Gibson, who is looking to find natural efficiencies. And while that will include closing data centers, and hence making some reductions at the civilian workforce, they would likely be less severe than the moves proposed by Thornberry.

“We have hundreds of clinics in the department, the health agency, that we can combine in a way to take cost out, because we can have a common procurement system. So when Chairman Thornberry talks about the fourth estate, there are multiple changes that have to occur,” Shanahan said.

Shanahan represents the highest-level Pentagon official to respond to the proposal. Two days after Thornberry unveiled his new concept, Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said that Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis “supports Chairman Thornberry’s initiative to identify where we can find value, greater value for the American people,” and pledged the department would continue to work with the House on the issue.

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

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