Significant changes to the federal acquisition process can come when better attention is paid to the people who make up the work force—or so was the dominate theme expressed Tuesday from a panel of defense acquisition experts who testified before the House Armed Services Committee.
Federal employees and program managers need more and better training to keep pace with ever-changing technologies and the market, for example, and less micromanagement, more process transparency with private industry partners and better incentives to stay on the job, the panelists told lawmakers.
Contrary to the stereotype, government workers do better “when they think they can actually make a difference,” testified Christopher Lamb, distinguished research fellow at the Center for Strategic Research, Institute for National Strategic Studies, at National Defense University, and who had served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for resources and plans, where he had oversight of requirements, acquisition and resource allocation matters for the under secretary of defense (policy).
“In my opinion, it ultimately comes back to people,” echoed Brett Lambert, who recently left his post as the deputy assistant secretary for manufacturing and industrial base policy and now is with the National Defense Industrial Association. “How talented are they? How well are they trained? How empowered are they to make the necessary call on any one procurement action, and are they rewarded for thinking? And how supported will they be when they get it wrong—which will occur in any human endeavor?”
Better transparency throughout the process would help with the monumental task of overhauling the process, as would an easing of regulations that prohibit contracting personnel from talking with private industry counterparts when a contract is about to be awarded, suggested Beth McGrath, who recently served as the Defense Department’s deputy chief management officer.
“First, put prototype functionality in front of users as soon as possible after they articulate what they need in the system. That initial release often sparks changes in the requirements or priorities once users see the possibilities,” McGrath told lawmakers, adding the department should use strong program and information technology managers who must keep projects focused on outcomes, guide development and “adherence to sound, standards-based practices to avoid risks from bugs and security vulnerabilities.” And she suggested the department “build flexibility into the contract while protecting the interests of the government. Realize that between prototyping and delivering releases, change orders will occur. Include the contracting officer in establishing a change process that is definitive, predictable and fair to all stakeholders.”
In the future, the Defense Department will increasingly buy from what Lambert calls the “millennial industrial base.”
“As defense budgets flatten or even decrease, our base will become more global, more commercial and more financially complex,” Lambert testified. “Outdated acquisition policies where the U.S. government dictates inflexible rules reflect the flawed notion that if the department simply wrote a large enough check, industry would magically provide for its every need. But today, the goods and services the department relies upon reach far deeper into the overall U.S. and global economy than most appreciate.”
The change can offer benefits from increasing competition to reducing costs and giving acquisition experts access to a wider product base. However, also comes with risks, he warned, such as substandard quality or counterfeit products. “The millennial industrial base is more global, more commercial and more financially complex than the traditional ‘defense industrial base’ and it will be marked moving forward more by its disposability than its continuity of service,” Lambert testified.
Ron O’Rourke, a naval analyst for the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress, provided lawmakers with examples of U.S. Navy acquisitions programs deemed successful, such as the Ticonderoga class Aegis cruiser, the Arleigh Burke class Aegis destroyer and the Navy’s “developing, procuring and safely operating nuclear propulsion systems” on surface ships and submarines, to name a few.
Acquisition reform and the search for better practices needs much further discussion and cannot focus on one area alone. “Three places need improved outcomes. The first is making the programs underway perform better,” Vice Adm. David Venlet, USN (Ret.), who spent 22 years in defense acquisition, told committee members. “The second is to only start and pursue the right programs. The third is removing waste in the infrastructure and process. The things to do for better outcomes are different for each one.”
For more information on this topic, see this video on “Better Buying Power 2.0: Do We Have it Right?,” a preview of AFCEA International’s Defense Acquisition Modernization Symposium taking place in Washington D.C., August 5 and 6.