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Conference Highlights Acquisition Dilemmas

September 9, 2009
By Henry Kenyon

Acquisitions experts from the government and private sectors agree that the procurement system is broken, but they do not necessarily agree about how to fix it. Meeting at AFCEA International's SOLUTIONS Series conference today, a consensus was achieved on contributing factors to the problem. Long acquisition cycles strip the effectiveness of many of the IT systems that are being purchased by the time they hit the field. Time and cost estimates are not realistic from the beginning of the purchasing process. Leadership to bring about true change is lacking. These were just some of the topics brought up during today's discussion, a discussion that will continue tomorrow on the second day of "IT Acquisition: Shifting to a Modern Paradigm," taking place at the National Conference Center as well as broadcast via the Web.

Many attendees were interested in a quick way to share some of the highlights of the speeches and panels with their bosses. Among the ideas and information shared during the conference:

-"Shouldn't we look for leaders who can clear up the complexity? Can we make this any harder?" Sue Payton said.

-The U.S. Army is changing its acquisition strategy to procuring services.

-The Army's Program Executive Office (PEO), Enterprise Information Systems, is changing the title of deputy PEOs to portfolio information managers.

-The Army's acquisition IT enterprise will be evaluated and changed in manageable chunks, each with its own schedule, budget and set of requirements. Now, the need exists to work on the seams as well.

-The U.S. Marine Corps needs: energy alternatives for the tactical environment; products that will lighten the load Marines must carry; and forward logistics support ideas.

-Realistic and knowledge-based estimates of time and cost must be at the beginning of the procurement process. Cost estimates are provided with a 50 percent level of confidence; this should be 80 percent.

-The acquisition work force must be trained better and expanded.

-Acquisition requirements must be reformed in terms of margin and realism; the military must accept that programs may go wrong yet take risks.

-Government needs to be more involved with industry. Acquisition rules MUST be modified so that government organizations can have discussions directly with companies.

-Industry needs to help agencies understand their innovations and ideas by describing them in a way that procurement officers can UNDERSTAND what they offer.

-Every service needs cybersecurity built in upfront, not as an add-on.

-Some said warfighters are using all the commercial technology they can get their hands on because official procurement takes too long; others disagreed, saying there is discipline in the services, and warfighters follow the rules when using communications systems.

-Cloud computing is the future for the DOD.

-Standards are good but also can stifle innovation.

-Process for certification and accreditation for commercial products is necessary but takes too long.

-Some said that warfighters' needs MUST be considered when developing IT systems; others said that warfighters can't be asked to define requirements because they don't know about available technologies. For example, how do warfighters ask for iPhone capabilities if they don't know what those capabilities are?

-"How do you purchase an iPhone in an eight-track acquisition world?" Joe Grace asked. One answer is ID/IQ contracts.

-One problem is the way contracts are designed. For example, contractors are paid to provide help desks, but the goal is to purchase systems that won't require users to call for help all the time. How can this approach be reversed?

-Commercial companies such as Marriott International face the same types of IT procurement issues. To address them, the company has a strategy to grow, but grow sensibly. The company used to "build to last," but now "builds to change," Laura Bouvier said.

What do YOU think is the biggest problem with the government acquisition system? How do YOU think it can be fixed?

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