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 In the IT world, innovation moves much faster than the government bureaucracy, so systems are outdated by the time they reach the Pentagon.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 forwhat 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 aNational 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.

Topics: Infotech, Infotech, Logistics, Procurement, Acquisition Reform

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