809 Panel Chair: Final Report to Prescribe Sweeping Acquisition Reforms
In a June 29 interview with National Defense, the chair of the influential Section 809 Panel said industry and other interested parties can expect his group’s final report to lay out sweeping changes in how the Pentagon does business.
Congress created the panel in the fiscal year 2016 National Defense Authorization Act to find ways to improve a defense acquisition system that some observers have described as “broken.”
The advisory group released June 28 its Vol. 2 report on streamlining and codifying acquisition regulations. The final report, Vol. 3, is expected to be released in January 2019.
“I’m pretty sure that there will be some changes to [contract award] protests and the protest process” in the final report, Section 809 Panel Chair David Drabkin told National Defense. “We haven’t voted on it yet but we’re going to discuss it. We’ve already got a paper among us” addressing the idea, he added.
Limiting the ability of companies to protest a contract award would surely find favor among defense officials who have complained about protests disrupting the progress of key programs.
The final report will also likely recommend “a huge increase” in the dollar value thresholds that apply to the use of simplified acquisition procedures for buying certain types of items, he said.
The current threshold is $7.5 million for a commercial item, and $150,000 for a non-commercial item, he noted.
“I think you’re going to see a huge increase in the proposal on the dollar threshold that would cover those” readily available commercial items and commercial items that need slight modifications, Drabkin said. “We’ll make the case I think that the risk in certain areas is so low to the government that the fact that we increased the dollar threshold doesn’t in and of itself increase the risk” of buying the products, he added.
Drabkin also expects significant changes in how the Pentagon buys defense-unique items that require new development efforts or new technologies.
“Our goal is to, where possible, do business in the marketplace the way buyers and sellers normally operate and to eliminate where appropriate those requirements that we have today in various contractual documents which are foreign to how companies do business between themselves,” he said. “That tailoring of those requirements in the rules really will be associated with the risk to the government that the seller won’t perform or the item we’re buying won’t achieve the outcomes we need.”
A shakeup of the acquisition workforce might also be in the cards, he noted. That could include additional educating and training and perhaps greater specialization.
The panel is questioning the current “one-size-fits-all” approach to managing the acquisition community, Drabkin said.
“My colleagues on the workforce team are looking at … whether we should consider a workforce that is specialized in certain areas and that we provide opportunities for them not only to specialize in those areas, but to grow, to get promoted,” he added.
The Vol. 3 report will also specify how Title 10 should be modified to make it easier for people to understand the rules that apply to procurement, he said, noting that the idea of “decluttering” the code is a burning issue for House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas.
The final report will also flesh out an idea suggested in the Vol. 2 report — the idea of replacing program executive officers with “portfolio acquisition executives” that would have oversight of broader technology areas.
“Currently the department really doesn’t manage its major weapon systems based upon capabilities,” Drabkin said. “They manage individual programs, individual systems, and it doesn’t provide them with the flexibility to move concentration of effort between various programs” that are geared towards similar mission sets, he added.
By establishing portfolio acquisition executives, the Section 809 Panel envisions the Pentagon combining many different programs that have similar capability focuses, such as air superiority, cyber or space, and putting them under the same overseer, Drabkin explained.
The final report will spell out what exactly that would entail, including whether programs from multiple services that are focused on the same technology categories would be placed under a joint acquisition office, he said.
“We’ve chosen to recommend that we move to an enterprise-wide management process, and we are working through whether that means enterprise from the perspective of the various military departments, or enterprise from the perspective of the Department of Defense,” he said.
“When we get to Vol. 3 … we should be able to define that better, but at the very least enterprise for purposes of portfolio management of similar capabilities ought to be managed at the service level and perhaps at the department level,” he added.
The new organizational construct would include new authorities that would facilitate the movement of money between the various individual programs within a particular portfolio management structure, and enable programmatic changes that are consistent with marketplace or technology developments, Drabkin noted.
“More critically, it allows us to deliver more rapidly that capability to the warfighter that they need in order to deal with those threats which are changing literally daily,” he said.