Thornberry welcomes data, stresses human factor in acquisition reform

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) at a July 2012 joint hearing of the House Armed Services Committee and the House Committee for Veterans Affairs (DOD Photo: Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo)

Rep. Mac Thornberry says improving the “expertise and ability of the acquisition workforce" will take a joint effort among the Pentagon, the services and Congress.

More precise contracting data is a good starting point for acquisition reform, but data alone won’t fix the Defense Department’s underlying workforce challenges, said Rep. Mac Thornberry, the man charged with leading House overhaul efforts.

The Texas Republican welcomed a data-intensive report on the subject released last week by Undersecretary of Defense Frank Kendall’s office. “I think it is certainly helpful for Mr. Kendall’s office to accumulate data that can better inform the decisions that he and Congress make going forward,“ Thornberry told FCW.

The report includes, for example, the number of contracts by service branch whose cost overruns triggered congressional oversight. Data left out of the report might also illuminate “areas where we need greater visibility of data,“ Thornberry said.

Kendall and the DOD official he tasked with coordinating with Congress on acquisition, Andrew Hunter, have said they want a data-driven approach to improving how the Pentagon buys weapons and IT systems. But by its own admission, the Pentagon has struggled to process contracting data. The department has several overlapping databases that obfuscate rather than clarify data, Acting CIO Terry Halvorsen said last week.

And while Thornberry also wants to use contract data to inform the acquisition process, “I think it’s important also not to forget that we’re dealing with human beings in this process,“ he said, adding that data will not yield all the answers. Thornberry told FCW last month that he wants to examine the incentives and disincentives for DOD program mangers handling contracts. A common criticism from acquisition experts is that DOD officials need to be more tolerant of risk in awarding contracts.

Many DOD contracting officials are short on experience, according to Jacques Gansler, who was undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics from 1997 to 2001. More than half of department staffers working on acquisition have less than five years’ experience, Gansler said at a recent Brookings Institution event.

Thornberry said there is only so much that Kendall’s office can do to address this workforce issue on its own. Improving the “expertise and ability of the acquisition workforce ... means engaging the services, looking at how people are promoted,“ he told FCW.

Thornberry also acknowledged the cyclical nature of acquisition reform, something experts have cautioned can lead to a shortage of ideas for improving the system. “One of the things Congress has not done very well in the past is ... we passed some acquisition reform and then kind of walk away from the issue,“ he said.

About the Author

Sean Lyngaas is an FCW staff writer covering defense, cybersecurity and intelligence issues. Follow him on Twitter: @snlyngaas

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Reader comments

Wed, Jun 18, 2014

Sean, Enjoyed, and agree, with your article. For our future, this is an important discussion. Proposed solution of focus on Acquisition professionals, not just PM or Contracting Officers, is a key to the full spectrum of the process. Former Army Acquisition Officer.

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