Official Touts Progress of Once Broken Air Force Acquisition Enterprise

By Stew Magnuson

BALTIMORE -- Five years into a long-term plan to turn around the Air Force's bad reputation for poor acquisition management, the service is beginning to make progress, a senior service leader said Oct. 6.

Robert Pollock, the chief process officer for Air Force acquisition, said in 2006, the Air Force acquisition corps had hit "rock bottom " with regard to its credibility, he said. The Government Accountability Office had overturned two major awards.

"We always had a low percentage of successful protests, but when we failed, we failed magnificently," he said at the Milcom conference.

While Pollock did not specifically mention the two programs that tarnished the Air Force's reputation, the aerial refueling tanker and the combat rescue helicopter were two examples of acquisitions gone awry in that timeframe.

Instead of doing what it normally did, "coming up with some miracle acquisition lightning bolt" that would instantly solve all its problems, leaders decided to create a long-term plan to change the way the service does business. The Air Force is now five years into the seven-year acquisition improvement plan, he said.

The plan includes: revamping the workforce and contracting; stabilizing requirements; improving the professionalism of the science and technology divisions; and teaching personnel "business acumen," he said. "All of the fundamentals you would expect a professional acquisition corps to be looking at across the board." There was a top-to-bottom review of all those areas.

The Air Force boosted the number of acquisition personnel in certain areas where it was lacking, particularly in science and technology and contracting, he said.

In 2006, about 49 percent of the workforce had certifications in the specialties they were assigned in. Today it is up to 85 percent. Only 62 percent of acquisition leaders in 2006 were qualified to hold their positions. Today, it is 96 percent, Pollock said.

One major reform has been instructing acquisition personnel in the ways of business.

"You would be surprised how few people in the federal government understand the idea of a corporate calendar," he said. They don't understand how the private sector is compensated and what is important to companies during negotiations.

There were too few trained personnel in contracting, he said. One reason was the high rate of deployment to Afghanistan, which is still causing a shortage, he added. The contracting workforce has been boosted by 16 percent, he noted.

"In addition, we are giving them the tools that they need," he said. That not only includes the training, but the contract writing methodologies being supplied by the Defense Department's office of the undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics.

Engineers who graduated in the 1970s with a degree in electrical engineering are being evaluated to see if they have the skills to design the weapon systems of today, Pollock said. If they don't, they are being retrained.

The Air Force in the next few months will follow the lead of the Navy and announce a superior supplier program, which will recognize corporate partners that are providing excellent service to the Air Force, he said.

The Air Force has also revamped the "blocking and tackling" of how it conducts the request for proposals process, along with the contract negotiations. This has resulted in a reduced number of successful protests, from .05 percent down to .005 percent in the last five years. That's one successful protest out of 2,500 contract actions, he said.

The Air Force also sought to stem the well-known problem of requirements creep, where new features are added into a program as it is in development. Now, any change to an established requirement must be vetted and signed off by the four-star general of the command that will be receiving the weapon system and the four-star general of the Air Force Materiel Command "to assure that what is being considered as a new requirement is actually obtainable," he said.

Requirements are also linked to affordability, he said. It was a fair criticism in the past the the Air Force had more programs than it could afford, he said. Since some programs were always late, the

Air Force solved that by shifting money around, he said. "We're getting out of that business." The service is now adhering to a 20-year investment plan to guide it, he said.

There is also a new focus on accountability. That means program managers are being rebuked for their mistakes. "Years after a bad decision was made, they are being admonished," he said.

The person who is doing that is William LaPlante. His title changed on Oct. 1 from the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition to the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition and logistics. Adding "logistics" to his title is an acknowledgement that he is responsible for affordability during the full gamut of a program's lifecycle.

"With that actual responsibility we can no longer continue the status quo of short-term acquisition decisions that make sense from a program manager perspective, but not an acquisition logistician perspective," he said.

Topics: Aviation, Procurement, Acquisition Reform, Defense Department

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