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National Defense > Blog > Posts > Information Technology Remains the Bane of Pentagon Procurement
Information Technology Remains the Bane of Pentagon Procurement
By Sandra I. Erwin



The Defense Department’s track record of buying new information technology systems has been abysmal, grumbled Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., during a recent hearing.

The usual grievances leveled by lawmakers and other critics: Defense Department information systems take years longer than expected to field, run hundreds of millions of dollars over budget, and end up being canceled without any benefit to the government.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., was visibly angry when she chided Pentagon acquisitions chief Frank Kendall at the April 30 hearing. “You're terrible at it, just terrible at it,” she said of defense IT procurement. “I would use an unladylike term about how bad the Department of Defense is at acquiring IT, but I don't want to do that as a United States senator.”

While the problems are well known, the Pentagon has yet to outline a plan to address them. Pressure to deliver successful information systems — which the Defense Department relies on for military operations and also for payroll, personnel, logistics management and accounting functions — only will increase, especially as budgets dip in the coming years. The Pentagon requested $30.3 billion for unclassified IT programs in fiscal year 2015, a drop of $1 billion, or 3.3 percent, from fiscal 2014, according to Bloomberg Government. The Pentagon receives the largest slice of the $73.9 billion federal IT pie.

McCaskill, who chairs the contracting oversight panel under the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, blames the Pentagon’s arcane buying policies for turning programs into boondoggles. In the IT world, innovation moves much faster than the government bureaucracy, so systems are outdated by the time they reach the Pentagon.

“Your acquisitions process has so many steps, and it's not flexible and it's not nimble,” she scolded Kendall. “And there is this horrible habit about requirements, and the military's bad habit about requirements has bled over into IT acquisition.” The Pentagon has no incentive to buy commercial technology that costs less because it has the money to pay a contractor to build a customized system, said McCaskill. She suggested Congress should demand more accountability.

Kendall recognized IT acquisition faces a steep climb to recovery. “I've spent a lot of time with our program executive officers and our program managers trying to understand the problems that they're seeing,” he said. One of them is the complexity of the approval process. “I think we're imposing too much burden on people and we're micromanaging,” said Kendall. But it is not yet clear how that could be changed.

Also crippling defense IT program is a poorly trained and equipped workforce, said Kendall. “We need to develop our expertise in this area. That's another fundamental concern,” he said. “I don't think we have enough qualified professionals in business systems. “There's a huge burden on the acquiring organization to be trained, to be ready to move over to that new system,” he said. “This is often where we really get in trouble.”

Kendall conceded McCaskill’s point that there is little incentive to change. “We have a tendency in the department, I think, to try to force the business systems that we acquire to do things the way we've historically done business.”

Military logistics systems have become poster children for what ails IT procurement. Each branch of the military develops its own systems that do not talk to each other, which complicates operations in the field. The Defense Logistics Agency spent billions of dollars on a new management system to help route messages from the different services’ logistics systems. The Air Force spent eight years and a billion dollars developing an “expeditionary combat support system” that the Pentagon scrapped in 2012 after huge cost overruns.

The ECSS failure was a big wakeup call, said Patricia M. Young, Air Force assistant deputy chief of staff for logistics, installations and mission support. “After the demise of ECSS, we took a strategic pause,” she told an industry conference last month. The Air Force is studying alternatives but it could be another 18 months before a decision is made on how to replace ECSS, she said. “We learned that we weren’t ready to manage an acquisition in that large scale. We're choosing a different route.”

Kendall said the ECSS collapse illustrates the broader problem. “We did not have the right professionalism or expertise on either the government's side or the contractor's side to successfully deliver that product,” he said. “We probably should have recognized that earlier.”

David Ahearn, a partner at the consulting firm BluestoneLogic, observed that the Pentagon’s hidebound culture will continue to sap IT programs. “Military-specific IT systems acquisition — not to be confused with email platforms and other commodity IT platforms — needs to be a completely different approach than hardware platform acquisition,” he wrote in a blog post. “The development of process over the last 15 years has crippled innovation in the IT space because it is treated like hardware or platforms.”

Frequently IT projects start off with a requirements “black hole, where non-technical people can "dream up" anything they like, and contractors are motivated to pursue programs based on their complexity, as those programs create a longer support tail, and a better bottom line for traditional defense contractors, Ahearn noted.

Lloyd McCoy, a market intelligence consultant with immixGroup, said the military services in the future will be seeking IT technologies that are “more mature and less risky, have architectures that allow for easy procurement or fielding.”

One of the Pentagon’s most ambitious IT projects will be in the Defense Health Agency as it seeks to consolidate multiple health IT management and infrastructure services under one roof, McCoy noted in a National Defense op-ed article. “There are new efforts to create one interoperable medical record that will transition seamlessly from the Defense Department to the Department of Veterans Affairs as service members go from active duty to veteran status.” A true integrated electronic health record between VA and Defense, however, remains several years away.

Photo Credit: U.S. Senate

Comments

Re: Information Technology Remains the Bane of Pentagon Procurement

We at the IT-AAC have tried in vein to provide OSD ATL leadership  a proven approach based on benchmarked best practices and 10 years of progressive Agile Acquisition IR&D.   The resulting Acquisition Assurance Method (AAM) framework has been successfully applied across a dozen agencies, including Navy CANES, AF ASAP, CIA KM, GPO FDSys, GSA FMS, AF EFOIA, BTA SOA CRS, JFCOM MNIS, and DISA GSM-O.  For each of these, this risk based decision framework operated within the confines of the existing FAR regulations.  The unique approach leveraged real world standards of practice, commercial innovations and design patterns already proven to deliver.   On average, 22% of the requirements were scrubbed out, identified as too costly or unimplementable with today's technology.  

The IT-AAC dozen SDO/NGO partners provide DOD the ability to reach into the heart of a $3.8 Trillion Global IT market, of which DOD and its DIB suppliers represent 1/2 of 1%.   Our 6 year struggle to break through the cultural barriers to change (Acquisition Mafia) has reinforced the writings of Machiavelli in the Prince, as well as Einstein's view of insanity.  

Mr. Kendall needs to recognize that Henry Ford did not go to the existing transportation industry base to design his car, recognizing they would have only requested a faster horse.  

Real change will take the kind of leadership resolve that Eisenhower possessed, and I believe Mr. Kendall, Mr. Work and Mr. Hagel have.  Please don't let the "we be gones" continue to protect their rice bowls.... 
John Weiler, IT-Acquisition Advisory Council at 5/8/2014 2:54 PM

Re: Information Technology Remains the Bane of Pentagon Procurement

I found an interesting note from a colleague who retired as a three star AF general, who many view as one of the most insightful leaders in the Defense IT Sector.     "There is a lot of talk about agility, speed, acq reform, etc, but, in general, no one seems to be willing to take the actions needed. They would rather just talk about it. When you look at the chart that shows the DoD acquisition model (you know the one I’m talking about that looks so byzantine), every would agree that it doesn’t make sense. And from the point of SEI or IT-AAC, even if we have built a better mousetrap, it won’t matter if no one listens. Right now, I see DoD increasingly moving away from good practices, to just giving up." 

We are beyond the tipping point, and are seeing our enemies ramp up their Cyber attack capabilities while we waste billions in analysis/paralysis.  This is a leadership problem. 
John Weiler, IT-Acquisition Advisory Council at 5/8/2014 7:46 PM

Re: Information Technology Remains the Bane of Pentagon Procurement

The primary problem isn't systems, contractors, OS's, software.  The problem is not having a person in charge that has the ability to change firmly locked in place biz rules and processes.  The United States military operates computers and networks the same way they did back in the late 60's through 80's.  Processes back then were changed to move paper based systems into computer based 80 column punch cards.  To this day nearly all DoD systems, especially the logistics systems still operate on those principles.  It is time to get the old generals, admirals, warrant officers, Sgt Majors and Chiefs out of the way and update our processes.  Stop building computer systems to imitate paper forms and processes or you will never solve this problem!
Pete at 5/9/2014 8:43 AM

Re: Information Technology Remains the Bane of Pentagon Procurement

From the aquisition trenches...  Me and my small band of brothers are motivated by Sir Winston Churchill's famous rallying cry “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never – in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense.  Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.” 
But it would be easier if Big Brother got out of our way and let us make them look good.
Christine at 5/9/2014 11:32 AM

Re: Information Technology Remains the Bane of Pentagon Procurement

It's difficult to see why the Senator would want the Pentagon to buy software as the private sector does.  Just look at the Obamacare fiascos at the federal and state levels or the multi-megabyte "patches" that the commercial geniuses have to issue every few weeks to eliminate vulnerabilities that the evil-doers usually find first. Besides, nobody knows who has had their hands on the software before it is delivered to our warfighters -- the private folks save money by having their code built the PRC and not paying for configuration management or root-cause analysis in case of a glitch. The Pentagon and the rest of the government would be better off if they insisted on government ownership of the design and source code and invested in the infrastructure necessary to verify, maintain and extend the software for themselves.
Bob at 5/9/2014 12:25 PM

Re: Information Technology Remains the Bane of Pentagon Procurement

Bob's position sounds like he works for an FFRDC.  GOTS never worked, which is why the Clinger Cohen Act was signed, forcing government to follow commercial best practices and buy vs build (COTS vs GOTS).   Every major IT failure documented by GAO followed Bob's approach and failed.   Commercial industry avoids custom development like the plague, as it is high risk and open to insider threats.   COTS code is the safest code in the world, and does not require an army of developers to maintain and support one agency at a time. 
John Weiler, IT-Acquisition Advisory Council at 5/13/2014 9:50 AM

Re: Information Technology Remains the Bane of Pentagon Procurement

As one who directed the Military Health System (as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary) and the Veterans Health System information system (as Chief Information Officer), let me, respectfully, make a couple of suggestions for your health information system.
First, remember what is is for. It to help your work to minimize illness, injury and disability and to maximize health, wellness and ability. Second, it must be person-centered for the service members (current and past) and their families. Third, it must address the personal health needs but in the context of occupation (combat and non-combat), environment, family and community. Finally and most importantly, the Military Health System [with some commonality with the Veterans Health System, the Indian Health System, the Kaiser Permanente system and similar systems in the United States and elsewhere in the world] must have a health system and a supportive health information system that helps take care of the people who take care of us.

Gary Christopherson
Founder, HealthePeople; Founder, Thrive! - Building a Thriving Future
Email - GChris@GChris.com 
Web - www.HealthePeople.com  www.ThrivingFuture.org  
Gary Christopherson at 5/14/2014 8:34 AM

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