AT&L official: Data restrictions in defense bill impede management

The already testy public debate between Pentagon officials and Sen. John McCain over an acquisition provision in the defense authorization bill is getting even testier.

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The public debate between Defense Department officials and Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain over an acquisition provision of the Senate version of the fiscal 2016 defense authorization bill continued July 17, with Alan Estevez, a defense acquisition official, saying the measure “impedes the secretary’s ability to manage the department.”                                  

The provision of the Senate bill in question is Section 843, which would shift milestone decision authority for major acquisition programs from the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics (AT&L) to the military service acquisition executives. This is intended to increase accountability for acquisition programs, but has irked AT&L officials who see a disruption in management.

McCain has argued that the bill’s shifting of the authority would not undercut Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s ability to oversee acquisition programs because the service chiefs report to Carter. But Estevez, the principal deputy undersecretary of Defense at AT&L, said explicitly otherwise at an event on acquisition reform hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

“The reality is the secretary manages the department through the OSD staff, not through the service staffs,” Estevez said. “When you say that you cannot provide data … to the undersecretary of AT&L, you’re impeding the [Defense] secretary’s ability to manage programs.”

Section 843 stipulates that the Defense secretary “shall ensure that no documentation is required outside of the military service organization” for service acquisition executives’ milestone decisions without the deputy chief management officer determining that the documentation meets a statutory requirement. That mandate’s self-described goal is to avoid adding to program delays and cost overruns, but Estevez worried it would amount to a blind spot in oversight. Like executives at any large corporation, AT&L officials want to be involved in major decisions that affect the organization’s bottom line, he said.

The stakes are huge. The Pentagon has 78 major defense acquisition programs, representing a planned spending program of $1.4 trillion, according to Andrew Hunter, a former AT&L official who is now a CSIS senior fellow.

A spokesperson for McCain did not respond to requests asking for the Arizona Republican’s rebuttal to Estevez’s comments.

Outside experts have also raised concerns about McCain’s proposed shift of milestone decision authority, with Katherine Schinasi, a former Government Accountability Office official, telling CQ Roll Call that the proposal “goes to undercutting the basis for how equipment should be acquired: with a joint perspective and civilian oversight.”

Venting on Section 843 aside, Estevez nonetheless said that his office agrees with many of the acquisition provisions in the defense authorization, noting that it incorporates several of AT&L’s recommendations.

The House and Senate have each passed versions of the defense authorization bill and are now conferencing to merge them. The White House has objected to both bills for their use of overseas contingency operations funding rather than base budgeting to meet policy priorities.

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