Time for Government to Dump its 8-Tracks

February 2011
By Capt. Joseph A. Grace Jr., USN (Ret.), SIGNAL Magazine

In the early 1970s, the music industry was transformed by the arrival of a practical solution to mobile music—the 8-track player. The world embraced this technology, which infected car stereos, home entertainment systems, portable players and lifestyles. While transformational, this technology soon was replaced by the cassette, followed by CDs and audio DVDs until Apple came out with the iPod—another game-changing technology. The market has created many forms of iPod docking stations for cars, clock radios, entertainment systems, airplane seats, pillows and every possible application. Uses include photos, FM radio, podcasts, videoconferencing and Wi-Fi. This technology is significantly smaller, faster, more comprehensive, more capable and inherently more user-friendly than its 8-track progenitor. The same lessons from this progression can be applied to command, control, communications, computers and intelligence (C4I) and government information technology.

Unfortunately, long budget and acquisition cycles, poor funding strategies and feed-the-beast mentality abound. Combine this with constantly changing leadership, burdensome safeguards, oversight, overhead, multiple audits, reviews and just overwhelming red tape, and it becomes almost impossible to deliver cutting-edge, agile technology development within government acquisition rules. Users exploit this technology every day in their outside lives but struggle to bring a similar capability into government—which still is stuck with the equivalent of 8-track technology.

Companies approaching the federal market are told to expect an 18- to 36-month sales cycle. In the SHIPMAIN program alone, putting a piece of equipment on a Navy ship averages 36 months, and that is once a contractor is in the pipeline for review. Combine this with a potential year of governance and six to nine months of certification, and it becomes a very long process. A software company would go through three to six versions of its product before ever finishing the selection process. Adding information assurance into the mix usually results in a “Chutes and Ladders” reaction: Just as the product approaches approval, it is sent back to the beginning to be re-certified because it is a new version. This is a never-ending cycle, and it is one reason that costs are so high and technology innovation is so delayed.

During a time of conflict, the path to innovation often is much shorter to meet emerging requirements and to provide capability to warfighters. We come up with rapid development processes or we just go outside the system. If we can do this in a time of war, then why can’t we improve the system in peacetime to support this same urgency for every other area of procurement?

Our procurement system was designed for large weapon systems that are developed over many years and for building ships and aircraft that are in service for decades. In almost every briefing, our senior leaders lament the procurement process and see it as an impediment to mission success. We have many ongoing working groups and commissions to find ways to improve these procedures. These activities in their own way now have become bureaucratic overhead that impedes the very progress they desire.

We must be very careful and diligent in our procurement of technologies. However, in the world of software and information technology, two to three years could be a lifetime. The unsatisfactory buying process must be improved. As an example, the Defense Business Transformation (DBT) initiative was an attempt to eliminate redundant purchases and ensure that the technology is scalable and fiscally sustainable and meets the needs of the government—a valiant effort to eliminate waste and ensure that purchases fit into a cohesive plan. Yet, what started as an agile review quickly became an overwhelming bloated process as well as a bottleneck and source of angst for personnel.

And the DBT is not alone. It is the need to spend $500 to protect $1 that drives these complex and archaic systems. When I was BUMED’s chief information officer, I once was told that to make a change on an ACAT-1 program would require nine months of effort and $1.5 million “just to change the paperwork.” That is a difficult way to manage any program.

A strong effort is underway to get maximum return on previous investments. We use governance to ensure that new technology requirements are funded, vetted, secure and reviewed, and we push for open architecture. If governance, which is a very important concept, is put in place as a well-oiled process that allows for innovative ideas to be reviewed, validated and either moved forward or rejected on a regular cycle in a reasonable time frame, then we would be taking an extremely positive step. However, if governance becomes simply just another means of job creation and a tedious bottleneck, then it has failed in its purpose of process enhancement.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates needs to trim his department’s budget by $100 billion. A good starting point would be to shorten the cycle for agile procurement; and remove overhead, processes, delay and the huge personnel costs supporting these processes. Shorter, less-costly sales cycles for the vendor community could reduce costs significantly. We need to stop funding older systems that in M.B.A.-speak represent a “sunk cost.” Good acquisition decisions take courage, intelligence and a full understanding of requirements, the technology at hand and underlying need.

Our people are bright, courageous, innovative leaders. It’s time to begin funding agile, game-changing technologies that are more affordable, more capable, lower cost, smaller size and lighter weight. It’s time to retire the 8-track—now DIACAP-certified, ruggedized, encrypted and able to be thrown out of the car window at 60 miles per hour unharmed. Let’s send it to the antique shops of American technology. If we don’t provide our people with the proper buying tools and improved processes, we are going to continue to fund that kickin’ 8-track while listening to our personal iPod.

Capt. Joseph A. Grace Jr., USN (Ret.), is the president and chief executive officer of Grace and Associates LLC and a former chief information officer for Navy Medicine. The views expressed are his own and not necessarily those of SIGNAL Magazine.


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