The Name of the Acquisition Game is Empowerment and Accountability
Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition Frank Kendall’s “better buying power” initiatives deserve applause, but it is also important to examine the root cause of many of the problems in the defense acquisition system.
Simply, it is the lack of empowerment and accountability. The Pentagon must return to the basic management principle of placing the most qualified people in charge, empower them with the authority to execute, and then hold them accountable for their performance.
It is imperative that the defense acquisition system deliver the best goods and services to the nation’s military forces more efficiently, particularly as the defense budget is reduced. The current system is way too complex to achieve this goal. This complexity causes significant waste for programs that are terminated or cannot be executed within their cost and schedule baselines.
A recent study by the Defense Business Board is correct in stating that the defense acquisition system — comprised of the three stovepipes of requirements, acquisition and budgets — is “too complex, too bureaucratic, too paper-laden, too lengthy and costly while disconnected and uncoordinated in both initiation and execution.”
The system has grown through legislation and internal reforms in response to specific problems. Attempts to solve them have resulted in multiple layers of laws and regulations. These many additions without subtractions have added reports and reviews to the process while failing to focus on the need to let individual managers and senior leadership drive the process and be accountable. There are just too many offices that have to be satisfied as a part of system decision reviews. Major milestones currently require more than 60 documents and other requirements to be completed. This encumbrance is way beyond necessary and the norms of good management, and often loses sight of the overall goal to ensure the effective use of taxpayer dollars.
The additional reports and reviews just add more time to the process and overhead costs. Some of the initiatives have caused offices to be created in the bureaucracy just to complete the reporting requirements without being integrated in the process. These reports and reviews would be totally unnecessary if the managers and senior leaders were empowered to make decisions within their portfolios and held accountable.
Under this complex system, everyone is “in charge” but, in reality, no one is. Many of the best professionals are thwarted from doing their job and often leave the defense civilian and military workforce before they reach their potential. Management expert Jim Collins said in his book, “Good to Great,” that companies excel by “getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats.” This theory is just as applicable to the government as it is to the commercial sector.
A system based on accountability will require qualified and empowered government professionals to establish a two-way partnership with suppliers. It is essential that the acquisition process be operated as a team effort between government and industry.
Service such as that offered by the Defense Fellows Program helps to remove misunderstandings between buyers and suppliers. At the most senior levels, arbitrary barriers between industry and government service need to be removed. Current barriers that badly need reform — such as lengthy confirmation and post-employment restrictions — are financial disincentives. The disqualifications and bureaucratic barriers to entry make it difficult to hire the best possible candidates. The human resource process needs to be reformed to establish a system that provides for hiring the best qualified professionals and providing career path management, training, education and promotion considerations that address both civilian and military personnel.
The aforementioned Defense Business Board study recommended that the Pentagon “zero base the entire system, including all directives and regulations.” The system players will likely react by trying to preserve their respective turf. To overcome this preservation, the secretary of defense needs to appoint an “acquisition reform czar” with the authority to make whatever changes are deemed necessary and to submit recommendations to Congress for statutory changes. This person should report directly to the deputy secretary of defense.
The goal will be to realign the three systems with common documentation and substantially reduce the number of reviews. Included in this goal will be the reformation of the requirements process in a manner that establishes key performance parameters that will ensure program affordability. Consideration should be given to more effective use of existing tools such as the statutory Configuration Steering Board with the service acquisition executives to review the requirements and, where indicated, de-scope program requirements and adjust funding as necessary. This will require the service chiefs to be more engaged and accountable in the process.
The senior leadership and Congress have tried for more than 60 years to reform defense acquisition through well-intentioned additions. The majority of the reforms have been directed at the process through laws and regulations. The entire system needs to be reconstructed with a focus on letting acquisition professionals manage and execute while holding them accountable to the public and the warfighters whom they serve.
Dale Church is a former deputy undersecretary of defense for research and engineering and acquisition management.
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