The Pentagon’s cadre of procurement workers often derided as “professional shoppers” could see a wave of reforms in the coming years, as the Defense Department remains under unrelenting pressure to fix its buying practices.
Reacting to a steady stream of criticism during the past several years about escalating costs and delays in weapons programs, acquisition officials are acknowledging change is needed.
The so-called “acquisition corps” is composed of 138,000 procurement specialists, most of whom are civilian workers. They oversee purchases of products and services worth nearly $100 billion a year.
Among the problems that call for immediate action, officials say, are inadequate training, lack of technical expertise and insufficient knowledge of the industries that supply goods and services to the Defense Department.
The Army, with nearly 50,000 procurement workers, has launched 58 initiatives to reform its acquisition corps, says Craig Spisak, director of the Army Acquisition Support Center.
The adjustments include mandates for technical training in areas that increasingly are consuming more of the Army’s procurement dollars, such as information technology and tactical networks.
The Army’s top military procurement official, Lt. Gen. Joseph Yakovac, is among the senior leaders who have been pushing for additional training for service buyers. He often has expressed concern about the Army’s ability to manage the escalating complexity of military systems, which is a reflection of the Army’s transition to a high-tech digital force. The Army’s acquisition bureaucracy, Yakovac says, is comfortable buying traditional hardware such as tanks, but not always versed on the latest information and communications technologies.
Spisak says it could take years to bring about major changes. “It takes time to overcome the inertia it takes to convince people they need new skills and capabilities,” he says during a Worldwide Business Research industry conference.
The Defense Acquisition University, which is responsible for educating the procurement workforce, already has begun to alter its curriculum to reflect these evolving needs, says Lenn Vincent, a retired Navy rear admiral and professor of military acquisitions at DAU.
“We have a shortfall in services acquisition training, such as information technology services,” he says at the conference. “The training is skewed to hardware acquisition ... We are trying to get the training to match the complexity of the acquisitions.”
One of the most disconcerting trends for the Defense Department is the shortage of young, qualified workers. “There is a competition for good people,” Vincent says. Corporations and governments all vie for a limited pool of candidates with technical degrees.
The Defense Department also wants procurement workers to learn how to collaborate with budget and requirements agencies. Traditionally, they all work in isolation, which is blamed for miscommunications that lead to cost overruns and unmet customer needs. As a result, DAU plans to begin shifting some of the traditional classroom training to inter-agency group instruction. In traditional professional military training, Vincent says, “we train as individuals but now we also need to train ‘as we fight’ in groups … as an organization.”
The university will create virtual simulations to make the training more realistic. “That’s where we are going to go and get cross-functional performance driven training,” he says. “We’ll bring a whole program management team to train together. We want to make that a model.”
If procurement professionals are to become more knowledgeable about their business and help the military move into the information age, they will also need to spend less time doing meaningless paperwork and devote more attention to other areas, says Jeffery Parsons, director of contracting at the Army Materiel Command.
“Acquisition personnel spend 70 to 80 percent of their time on administrative busywork, rather than strategic brainwork,” he says. He defines brainwork as grasping the nuances of the marketplace, “understanding the supplier base and knowing what suppliers are out there.”
The upshot, he says, is that “we need to push for more advanced education.”
Both the Defense Department senior leadership and Congress, meanwhile, have directed the acquisition workforce to better manage services contracts. Services currently account for 53 percent of all Pentagon contracts. They range from mundane administrative support contracts to multibillion-dollar deals for managing military bases.
“The Defense Department has not come to grips with how to manage services,” says Mark Krzysko, assistant deputy undersecretary of defense for strategic sourcing. “We struggle with how to do that,” he says at the WBR conference.
“The acquisition process for services needs to be defined,” he adds. “We are working over the next few months on how we will manage services.”
The push to reform acquisition practices is expected to intensify as the Bush administration continues to pour tens of billions of dollars into the war in Iraq. The conflict so far has cost the Treasury $420 billion. To offset the expense, the Defense Department could face substantial cuts in such areas as procurement, research and development.
Much of the rhetoric coming from the Pentagon’s top leaders recently has been tinted by a sense of urgency about the necessity to reform acquisition “or else” expect draconian measures.
Among the toughest critics of military procurement these days is Navy Secretary Donald Winter, who was formerly a defense industry executive.
“There is frustration on cost and schedule in major acquisition programs. Plus, frustration about responding to war fighter needs,” Winter tells attendees at an Office of Naval Research conference in Washington, D.C. “It’s time to evaluate our acquisition performance and adjust our efforts.”
Winter, like other defense officials, believes that government procurement personnel must be more knowledgeable about the technologies they buy.
“The government cannot escape its responsibility in defining requirements and specifications,” Winter says.
He also recommends that acquisition officials work more closely with their customers — the fighting forces.
“Operators are in the best position to determine what’s operational suitability,” Winter says. “We need specifications that are informed by those who understand the consequences and are naturally vested in the outcome of acquisitions. We need to bring back synergy among operators, acquisition personnel and contractors.”
Military buyers, further, should better comprehend the risk associated with every decision they make. “We need to realistically assess the risk and ensure we can manage the developmental uncertainties ... We have to be a knowledgeable buyer in the department.” Determining what technologies the Pentagon should buy requires a “capable workforce,” Winter adds. “I don’t want to be totally dependent on industry for that perspective.”
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