Small bites, greater expertise produce speedier acquisitions

DOD has ways to increase the odds that IT acquisitions will deliver the expected results

If the Defense Department’s process for buying information technology remains a source of much hand-wringing at the Pentagon and in Congress, it’s not for a lack of ideas about how to make it better.

Procurement experts say DOD officials have several steps they could take to increase the odds that acquisitions will deliver the expected results in a timely and cost-effective fashion.

Four reforms to a faster purchase

A Defense Department task force studying how DOD should buy information technology at a faster rate recently made an obvious statement in its report. DOD’s acquisition process is too time-consuming and too cumbersome to fit with the ever-evolving world of information technology.

But the task force presented four areas in need of change, if DOD wants to buy its IT faster. It noted the most important reform is getting qualified people in charge.

  • Acquisition policies. Use successful commercial IT acquisition practices as the model for a new DOD process. The process should be agile and geared to delivering IT upgrades in increments of 18 months or less. Officials should prioritize the increments on the need and readiness of the technology. The task force said the current acquisition process can take more than seven years for a major automated system.
  • Senior officials’ roles and responsibilities. DOD’s chief information officer should have strong authorities and responsibilities for enterprisewide information policy direction, its architecture and infrastructure.
  • Acquisition authorities and organization. Acquisition authority and expertise in the defense secretary’s office is spread so widely that there’s a lack of enterprisewide architecture and coordination. Instead, DOD should consolidate all acquisition oversight of IT into the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics. Specifically, DOD should move into that office the parts of the CIO’s office and Business Transformation Agency responsible for IT acquisition oversight. Some of the task force disagreed with this recommendation, but supporters say it would help to avoid slowdowns in getting needed approvals.
  • Acquisition expertise. The task force said the subject-matter expertise required for successful enterprise IT system acquisition is too often missing in government managers. Today, acquisition leaders need proven and relevant business experience in the appropriate areas of acquisition, product development and management. Similarly, program managers and program executive officers need track records of proven success. The task force urged officials to put a project on hold if no one is qualified to manage it.

Those ideas could come in handy in the near future. The House version of the fiscal 2010 National Defense Authorization Act (H.R. 2647) invites DOD officials to identify 10 IT programs each year to use as test beds for new approaches to improving the procurement process.

Members of the House Armed Services Committee certainly see plenty of reason to worry.

Almost a third of the department's IT acquisition projects are canceled before they are finished, according to the committee’s Defense Acquisition Reform Panel. Only 16 percent of the acquisitions are completed on time, with the others often costing 90 percent more than the original estimate, Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.), the panel's chairman, said at a July 9 hearing.

The problem is a culture clash, Andrews said. In the federal government, slow and deliberate acquisition procedures can't keep pace with rapidly changing technology. The acquisition procedures are designed as barricades against bad judgment and wastes of money.

“When you combine the dynamic of the tech world with the deliberative culture of the Department of Defense procurement, you’ve got some trouble,” Andrews said.

The House passed the bill June 25. Although the Senate’s version doesn’t have the provision, the lessons that officials and experts give on the faster approach are still relevant. And if the provision does make the cut, these lessons could serve as the basic building blocks for whatever approach the department tries.

No. 1: Take small bites.

Timothy Harp, an acting deputy secretary of Defense who oversees IT acquisition, said DOD should break up IT projects into segments that can be finished fast. Then DOD has more opportunities to get the latest technology out of industry. As companies compete for firm fixed-price contracts with clearer definitions, DOD can grab hold of the latest advances in technology and might save a little money.

Working in smaller increments, rather than fully erecting large systems acquisitions, will speed new technology to military personnel in combat zones, Harp said.

As it stands now though, “the technology changes faster than the requirements process, faster than the budget process,” and faster than decision-making process, Harp said.

A DOD task force concluded in a report issued in March that the new acquisition process must be agile and capable of delivering IT systems in no more than 18 months. Currently though, it takes much longer. In an analysis of 32 major automated information systems, DOD calculated it took more than seven years on average to get the systems running.

"Without an acquisition process that accommodates — and takes advantage of — IT’s rapid pace of change, future DOD acquisition officials will likely be frustrated in their efforts to equip the nation’s warfighters and weapon systems with the needed information technologies,” according to the Defense Science Board Task Force on Department of Defense Policies and Procedures for the Acquisition of Information Technology.

No. 2: Change with the technology.

The task force recommends simultaneously launching multiple parts of a system that can be completed fast. Those parts should have defined project requirements, but those definitions should not be too rigid at the start. Instead, those requirements should evolve with the project as segments change with new technologies.

When DOD is buying quickly evolving IT systems, “requirements creep” — the phenomenon by which a project expands beyond its original form — might not be the problem that it normally is. In some cases, it can be important and appropriate, Andrews said.

If DOD is working on a project divided into smaller pieces, the schedule should be the priority, according to the task force. Officials should worry more about meeting deadlines than about getting approvals from every organization, especially those with little interest in or responsibility for the project. Program officials who know the program and technology need more authority to make the ultimate decisions knowing the risks involved, the task force added.

"This approach implies that the program manager is not obliged to obtain a ‘thumbs up’ from each functional organization,” the report states.

Finding flexibility in regulation for a new acquisition process might not be as tough to do as some might think. Melissa Starinsky, vice chancellor of the Department of Veterans Affairs Acquisition Academy’s Internship School, said the Part One of the Federal Acquisition Regulation gives agencies a lot of flexibility to conduct their procurements.

If a strategy isn’t addressed in the FAR or prohibited by law, it “is a permissible exercise of authority,” the FAR Part One states.

“The FAR is a very empowering document,” Starinsky said. Acquisition officials are given permission to think more creatively than many of them realize.

No. 3: Find people with know-how.

Ronald Kerber, co-chairman of the task force, said a reformed, streamlined acquisition process is good, but the acquisition officials need experience and expertise for it to work well.

Throughout the decades, studies and reforms on DOD’s acquisition process have missed the root causes of procurement problems. Their attempts to re-engineer the program mechanics are “really only symptoms of the lack of experienced judgment on the part of department personnel who structure acquisition programs in a way that will almost certainly lead to failure,” Kerber said.

Government managers and acquisition officials often lack an intimate understanding of the program they are responsible for. For success, acquisition leaders need proven and relevant business experience in the appropriate areas of acquisition, product development and management. Similarly, program managers and program executive officers need track records of proven success.

Getting the right people in place is so critical that Kerber and the task force said officials should seriously consider putting a project on hold until the right managers come along.

For overall success, these fundamental shifts in acquisition stretch beyond the acquisition workforce and program managers. DOD's top leaders, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, must support the reforms if they are to succeed.

"It all gets down to people,” said Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), the panel’s ranking member.


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