The Acquisition System Can Be Improved One Step at a Time

By Will Goodman
It is on every politician’s list of goals or campaign promises. It is bipartisan, bicameral, and unites the legislative and executive branches of government. Entire organizations in the Pentagon are devoted to bringing it about. So what stops us from reforming defense acquisition?

Part of the problem is the ambiguity of the term itself, which is used with great frequency and yet has no consistent definition. For some, acquisition reform means purchasing items at a lower cost. For others, it means fielding equipment more rapidly. Still others worry about technological superiority and more about what we buy than what we spend. Some direct their ire to specific issues, such as cost-type contracts. Others believe that too many requirements are put forward. And the list goes on.

The ambiguity of our goals then collides with the structure of our system. Although everyone seems to agree that acquisition reform is necessary and helpful, few are prepared to sacrifice their prerogatives to bring it about. These seemingly inviolable prerogatives form “boundary conditions” for what can be done to change the acquisition process.

They pertain to the civilian and military personnel processes, how the government budgets and appropriates funding, industry’s incentives, the audit and oversight structure and process, the news media, outside organizations and other areas. In addition to limiting what can be done to change acquisition, these boundaries hold the current system in a strong state of equilibrium that enforces the entropy to which all earlier acquisition efforts have eventually succumbed.

The diversity of acquisition reform goals and their ephemeral quality augurs less for one-shot omnibus measures than a continuous, sustained effort at improvement. In theory, if politicians and policy makers decided to work together over a sustained period, modest efforts that yield modest improvements could, over time, convince at least some actors to sacrifice their prerogatives in the name of true acquisition transformation. Fortunately, we have such committed politicians and policy makers in Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall.

These leaders will need a place to start, and to offer them one, the National Defense Industrial Association conducted a nearly year-long, member-driven acquisition study under the leadership of Jon Etherton, our senior fellow, to identify a pathway for acquisition transformation. Our study, released in early December, groups its specific recommendations in three primary areas: authority and accountability, matching requirements to resources and evidence-based decision making.

In the area of authority and accountability, the report recommends restoring the time-honored principles of the Packard Commission by providing broad authority to acquisition decision makers, clarifying and shortening their chains of command, centralizing acquisition authority and responsibility, and holding those responsible, accountable. To that end, the report recommends a Defense Streamlined Programs Pilot authority, which would add managerial judgment and flexibility to the acquisition process. It recommends tasking the service chiefs to link and streamline the requirements, acquisition and budget processes, and holding them accountable for requirements validation, rather than the Joint Requirements Oversight Council, a multi-service committee.

It recommends identifying and expanding the use of commercial “state of the practice” subsystems, measuring value beyond individual transactions to incentivize and reward creative acquisition strategies, streamlining the process for commercial item determinations and facilitating government and industry collaboration on the path forward for intellectual property rights.

Last, it recommends empowering and rewarding government employees to bolster the absolutely essential dialog with industry.

NDIA strongly supports limiting the requirements levied on the acquisition system to the resources provided to it, and likewise making sure that any remaining essential requirements are properly resourced. To that end, the report recommends instituting a process for sunsetting new and existing acquisition requirements in statute, or alternatively convening an expert panel to review and reduce the requirements in the current body of acquisition law.

The report recommends several approaches to improving the management of both the civilian and military acquisition workforces by making workforce management more strategic, fully funding the Defense Acquisition Workforce Development Fund on a stable basis and making the acquisition profession more attractive to capable and talented military personnel.

The report recommends more collaboration between government auditors and the vendors they audit and close oversight of that process by Congress. And it recommends taking advantage of the low administrative costs of small businesses by raising their reserve under the Simplified Acquisition Threshold to $250,000 and raising the threshold to $500,000 for all businesses.

NDIA believes that future acquisition strategies and decisions should be made based upon evidence. During the research process, NDIA members raised several acquisition processes as problematic, but the data to substantiate those concerns have not been collected and analyzed. NDIA therefore recommends having the Government Accountability Office study complex systemic acquisition problems, such as the possible abuse of the bid protest process by contract incumbents, the impact on innovation of the Lowest Price Technically Acceptable source selection method and Indefinite Delivery, Indefinite Quantity Multiple Award Contracts, and the future utility of a management reserve account if applied strategically to certain acquisition programs.

Further, NDIA recommends taking full advantage of “big data” advances in automated information collection and analysis to improve the quality and reduce the manual burden of acquisition program reporting requirements.

Last, the report endorses an ongoing department initiative, Technology Domain Awareness, as a way to increase the efficiency of public and private research and development through incentives rather than mandates.

As Etherton often points out, “Many people say they like to travel, but that is not true. They do not like to travel. They like to arrive.”

We must be cautious to avoid thinking that by instituting these changes, or a similar set of changes, we will have finally reformed acquisition. The pressures exerted on the defense acquisition system are powerful, and they will continue to resist change in spite of our ambitions.

For that reason, we must keep walking the pathway to transformation. Many point out that these steps in pursuit of improved acquisition are not our first. They are absolutely right. But even if we undertake this effort properly, they will also by no means be our last.

Will Goodman is assistant vice president for policy at the National Defense Industrial Association.

Topics: Business Trends, Doing Business with the Government

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