Acquisition Experts Debate

November 2009
By Maryann Lawlor
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Military leaders at the SOLUTIONS Series Town Hall discussion in September interact with audience members about information technology acquisition. By way of introduction (l to r), Al Mink, program committee chairman, asks panelists Maj. Gen. (Sel.) George J. Allen, USMC, director, C4, and chief information officer, U.S. Marine Corps; Tony Montemarano, component acquisition executive, DISA; and Frank Anderson, president, Defense Acquisition University, for their top three issues on the subject.

Capabilities continue to grow while procurement processes persist to slow.

A multitude of sentries stand between state-of-the-art solutions and warfighters’ hands. The acquisition bureaucracy has become so convoluted that even urgent need requests are feeling the effects. Debating the way around or right through the administrative sentinels that procurement professionals face in the government was the focus of AFCEA International’s SOLUTIONS Series event, “IT Acquisition: Shifting to a Modern Paradigm.” At the September event in Lansdowne, Virginia, identifying the problems was not a challenge; agreeing on the most expedient way to solve them was a little more difficult.

On hand for the lively discussions were leaders from a multitude of government agencies, including the U.S. Defense Department. Industry executives also chimed in, asking questions and bringing their concerns and ideas to the table. Attendees may not have walked away from the conference with final answers, but they definitely gained in-depth insights into the enormity of the challenge and the thought processes of the people addressing these tough issues every day.

Leading off the two-day event was Sue Payton, former assistant secretary of the U.S. Air Force for acquisition, former deputy undersecretary of defense/acting director of defense and engineering, and former president of SCI Aerospace Incorporated. Payton itemized a number of problems plaguing the procurement process, including the “incredibly complex regulations that few companies can understand.” Proposing that defense acquisition should be run in a more businesslike manner, she acknowledged that Defense Department purchasing is different; layers of oversight are required to ensure that taxpayer money is being spent wisely. This said, she pointed out that the department needs more leaders who are willing to clear up the complexity.

One of the key issues that must be addressed is the requirements process. First, warfighters have a difficult time prioritizing their needs. Second, cost estimates are provided with only a 50 percent confidence level; this should be 80 percent, Payton proposed. Third, the margins for solutions deliveries should be larger, setting realistic expectations, she added. Fourth, the military must accept the possibility of product or project failure yet be willing to take risks.

Payton also called for an increase in the number of acquisition personnel, a number that has dwindled significantly during the past several years. However, it is not only recent college graduates who are needed but also experienced procurement professionals.

A recurring theme throughout the conference sessions was the need for government to become more involved with industry. Unclear communication between the two entities appears to be at the root of many of the acquisition woes. Diann McCoy, account executive, Acquisition Solutions Incorporated, and former component acquisition executive for the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), pointed out that industry is not prepared for the complexity of the Defense Department’s processes. “There is a lack of willingness from government agencies to talk to industry,” McCoy stated.

Although open dialogue with companies could ensure more well-defined requirements, solutions and expectations, grasping it is not an easy task. Kathleen Miller, director, procurement directorate, DISA, explained that one-on-one meetings with companies would produce the best results; however, regulations require that the Defense Department representatives share the exact same information with each firm, and this is a difficult undertaking, she admitted.

Experts sharing their thoughts in the different panels disagreed about how warfighters in the field are dealing with procurement delays. While some simply stated that troops are using whatever technology they can get their hands on, others insisted that military discipline overrides the cravings to employ the latest technology, and warfighters are following established processes and procedures.

In addition to the debate, several announcements were made at the conference. Ed Velez, deputy program executive officer, enterprise information systems (PEO EIS) for the U.S. Army, revealed that the Army is considering changing its acquisition process from one that focuses on products to the new paradigm that emphasizes purchasing services. “We have a bucketload of challenges; we don’t know all the answers yet,” Velez noted.

In addition to this change, the PEO EIS moved to a portfolio information managers’ model in September. Acquisition, financial management, human capital and logistics are now the functional areas, which breaks down the information technology acquisition enterprise into manageable chunks. Each area will have its own schedule, budget and set of requirements. “We are building as segments, but we are building the enterprise,” he explained.

Looking at the overall picture, the questions for each technology that will be introduced include: Does it serve the entire enterprise? What does the user expect? When do we need it? How do we put the pieces back together again? Working on the seams between these areas is an important step so that the enterprise can be rolled out at one time. This holistic approach involves focusing on schedules, security, data and user experience, Velez added.

Members of one panel discussed how to find and procure game-changing technologies in the vast array of offerings. Capt. Joe Grace, USNR, and president and chief executive officer, Grace and Associates, began the session by asking panelists to offer their ideas about how to “buy an iPhone in an eight-track world.” Among the suggestions was the need for better organized corporate information, increased communication between the commercial and government sectors, agility in upgrading current technologies and open-ended mechanisms that enable information technology service management.

Agreeing that the acquisition system is broken, Capt. Grace asked panelists what they believe needs to be changed. James P. Craft, deputy director C4/deputy chief information officer, U.S. Marine Corps, pointed out that today’s acquisition process is “culturally killing” innovation because the rules were created to prevent program failures. He recommended that the Defense Department increase the amount of risk it is willing to take on with new projects. “We have to eliminate the ‘we’re all going to do the same thing’ mentality,” Craft said. “Technology is a great servant; it’s a terrible manager.”

Col. Ed Mays, USMC, product group director, Marine Corps Systems Command, suggested that some of the acquisition rules be modified so open discussions can be held directly with companies. He also proposed that the problem of “unwieldy need statements” be addressed to drive the armed services away from the current slow procurement process.

The quietest moment in one panel session occurred when Capt. Grace asked the panelists, “If you could build the information technology acquisition process from the ground up, how would you do it?” Panelists entered deep thought for several moments before finally diving in with possible solutions. They agreed on the need for requirements and testing but suggested looking to commercial capabilities more often. One panelist recommended taking all of the available commercial projects, putting Defense Department subject matter experts in a room, telling them to find the software packages that fulfill their requirements, then—once the decision is made—pulling the funding from all the other systems.

One of the high points of the SOLUTIONS conference was a Town Hall meeting. As moderator, Al Mink, chairman of the program committee, kicked off the discussion by asking for input from three panelists: Maj. Gen. (Sel.) George J. Allen, USMC, director, C4, and chief information officer, U.S. Marine Corps; Tony Montemarano, component acquisition executive, DISA; and Frank Anderson, president, Defense Acquisition University (DAU). Mink asked the panelists to state the top three acquisition issues they face.

Gen. Allen explained that at the forefront in his mind is the rate at which technology is moving, a speed much faster than the acquisition process can handle; network security; and “green” information technology. Montemarano said his top three issues are cultural issues that slow down processes; the need to embrace rather than avoid procurement processes; and the state of the acquisition work force, particularly in light of DISA’s planned move from Arlington, Virginia, to Fort Meade, Maryland. Anderson agreed with Gen. Allen about the challenges that speed of technology development pose and with Montemarano about work force concerns. He also said that one of his top priorities is reviewing DAU’s curriculum to ensure the university includes the correct training for procuring information technology.

After these brief comments, the floor was open for questions, debate and comments. Capt. Grace posed a query to the panelists regarding the logistics of supporting new capabilities. “How do you write the [acquisition] policy so when we get the technology, we can support it later?” Gen. Allen stated that one solution is to move away from proprietary products. Anderson agreed that an open architecture is the best solution, but he pointed out that contractors do not always like that approach. Instead, he recommended bringing users into the process sooner, continuing to make information technology purchases in increments and increasing the flexibility of the policy. Montemarano called for simpler, smaller network-enabled solutions, and said that he was not sure how the Defense Department could set up a flexible policy.

In response to an audience question about how the department can go about changing acquisition processes, Montemarano reiterated his call for smaller solutions. “We don’t know the end state, but we need to control it. It is happening under the radar screen,” he stated.

SOLUTIONS Series “IT Acquisition: Shifting to a Modern Paradigm:”



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