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Acquisition Reform Requires a Broad-Based Effort

November 2009
By Kent R. Schneider

AFCEA increasingly is engaged in the effort to improve the acquisition process, particularly as it supports the command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) and information technology communities. The association addresses this critical topic in this edition of SIGNAL; it has supported some workshops to discuss specific aspects of the problem; and it has held two conferences in the past several months on acquisition.

In June, AFCEA co-hosted a conference in London on “Acquisition in Time of War” that focused mostly on NATO and supported what some would call expeditionary acquisition. In September, the association ran one of its SOLUTIONS series events at the NationalConferenceCenter in Lansdowne, Virginia, on C4I and information technology acquisition. AFCEA also is being asked frequently to include acquisition content in many of its warfighter-focused events worldwide. From all of this activity, and from many separate discussions with government and industry leaders focused on improving acquisition, I have reached some conclusions.

First, I believe that acquisition must be a definitive, risk-based effort. It will not come as a revelation that acquisition is incredibly complicated and diverse. Even though we accept that statement, the government has great difficulty creating laws, policies and regulations that allow for the great variance in risk and scope of procurements. When individuals buy something in the commercial marketplace, they automatically adjust their processes to reflect these factors. For example, when I buy a shirt, I look at some options, make a selection and then purchase it. The cost is relatively low and the risk of a bad decision is small, so I do not spend much time researching the problem or doing due diligence on the product or the manufacturer. On the other hand, when I buy an automobile, the cost is higher and the risk of a bad decision is greater. Accordingly, I will spend time researching past performance of various cars and studying maintenance records and likely total cost of ownership. I also will obtain references from other people who already have driven the candidate cars before I make a choice.

Government consensus is needed to adjust the acquisition process to approach risk in the same way. We do not need the same rigor in the process for most information technology purchases as we do for a new tank or airplane. The problem with streamlining where appropriate seems to be the number of organizations that are part of the process and the layers of oversight involved today. Any serious efforts to simplify or streamline the overall acquisition process or to fast-track lower-cost/lower-risk acquisitions must start with reducing the number of players and the excessive layers of oversight. In addition, we need consensus that a risk-based approach will be used and that risk mitigation will be proportional. Part of that approach must be agreement on how risk is defined and the thresholds that will be used for escalation of mitigation.

Second, acquisition stovepipes must be eliminated. This is such an easy statement to make, but it is so hard to achieve. All governments have stovepipes that may be political, functional, legal, financial, organizational or cultural. Large governments typically are plagued with stovepipes in all these categories. Coalitions such as NATO add even more complexity from this standpoint. The result is that every step of the acquisition process, from requirements through execution, is done separately for each stovepipe, creating inefficiency and a lack of compatibility. Attempts to work across boundaries typically are only partially successful. The only real answer is to adopt truly integrated acquisition, and in most countries that is difficult to achieve. Any progress in this area toward reducing, if not eliminating, stovepipes—along with greater integration of acquisition—would yield tremendous returns.

Third, I am convinced that many very committed people are working hard to improve acquisition. I am equally convinced that there is little synchronization of this effort. This appears to be true for efforts I have observed in both the United States and NATO. I have not had recent direct observation in the Pacific and in other regions of the world, but I suspect the same is true there. Leadership is needed at the top of every government and every coalition to harmonize the efforts in improved acquisition. Consensus on end states is needed along with effort harnessed to meet those end states. There seems to be some momentum toward solutions that we have not seen in many years. Let’s not waste that effort. Let’s work together to get the job done.

We all are involved in some way in the acquisition process. We all must become engaged to improve and streamline it. If we do not, we all will suffer, but the warfighter will suffer most. The NATO C3 Agency has a great video filmed in Afghanistan that shows interviews with commanders at various levels. The message is clear: The support they receive is good, but it comes 18 months too late. My guess is that you could create a similar video in any theater of operations and everywhere warfighters are to be found. Let’s not allow future videos to tell the same story.