Can culture shifts, open architecture prod defense acquisition reform?

Elizabeth McGrath

Deloitte's Elizabeth McGrath, the Defense Department's former deputy chief management officer, was among the witnesses at a June 24 House Armed Services Committee hearing.

Improving and streamlining defense acquisition is a perennial topic of congressional hearings. But reform doesn't mean the same thing to everyone. The occasionally conflicting demands of legislators, as well as cultural factors inside the Department of Defense, may be what make acquisition reform such a tough nut to crack.

At a June 24 hearing of the House Armed Services Committee, a panel of former Defense officials and policy experts heard from members who were worried that acquisition was too bogged down in red tape, too slow, too expensive, too friendly to longtime incumbent contractors and inimical to small business participation, but also occasionally rushed at the expense of an enterprise-wide approach.

"I believe the causes for our discontent with the performance of the acquisition system do not lie in the laws and regulation," said retired Navy Vice-Admiral David Venlet. "It's underlying decisions that are made that try to respond for the years of acquisition reform pressures. ... do this faster, do this cheaper. That pressure has an unintended consequence of suppressing the practice of good sound fundamentals and realism."

Elizabeth McGrath, the recently retired former deputy chief management officer at DOD, and a leader in enterprise-wide IT acquisition policy, said her tenure taught her that rapid prototyping and revision, strong program management, and contract flexibility to account for changes in requirements that occur in an agile development process are key elements to effective technology acquisition.

But having a strategy and executing it are two different things.

McGrath, who is now with Deloitte Consulting LLP, noted that, culturally, the department is still in the midst of a generational shift, from maintaining a staff of dedicated coders to grooming program managers with expertise in acquiring and implementing commercial off-off-the-shelf products for use in DOD business systems. Staffing and culture have "not kept up with the way the technology evolved," McGrath said.

"The workforce needs to be trained on how do you acquire and configure commercial capabilities as opposed to what we do today in the acquisition process. The training isn't focused, I don't think, enough on how to enable a better implementation," McGrath said.

The latest iteration of the DoD Directive 5000, the acquisitions bible used in defense procurement, embeds new guidance that differentiates the acquisition of commercial IT products for business use from procurement of weapons systems. McGrath said that earlier efforts to create a separate rulebook for IT "confused people." At the same time, McGrath said that IT is different, and requires different training and processes. "It has the opportunity to move faster than perhaps some of the other aspects of acquisition," she said.

Software for weapons, ships, aircraft, and other complex hardware systems poses a separate problem, said Ronald O'Rourke, a naval specialist at the Congressional Research Service. The Navy is trying to contain costs and problems of interoperability by "moving to more open architecture approaches to the integration of software in weapons system platforms," O'Rourke said. He cited the Acoustic Rapid COTS Insertion program, an open architecture program for swapping in the latest signal-processing computers in Navy submarines. The ARCI program can be viewed as an early example of 'walking the walk' on open architecture," O'Rourke said in his prepared testimony. One key benefit of open architecture, he said, is that it lowers barriers to small business participation.

Data transparency is another area for possible reform, said Christopher Lamb of the National Defense University. Currently analytic resources are concentrated in the individual services. "They own the data, the models, and the trained personnel for evaluating tradeoffs," Lamb said. They are fierce defenders of their own programs and prerogatives, and can supply data and arguments to support their decisions. "They do not want to reopen the evaluation process to reconsider performance parameters that would challenge their programs in a joint venue." As a result, "the large amounts of resources used for analysis in the Pentagon often obscure rather than illuminate choices." Fixing the problem isn't a matter of rewriting acquisition rules, he cautioned, but a deep, structural change in the way military leadership is organized.

There are moves inside the DOD and in Congress to make changes to military procurement, with Frank Kendall, undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, leading efforts at the Pentagon, and Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, exploring options in the House. But if history is any guide, a lasting solution will prove elusive.

"This is something we've done over and over. But I'm confident that this time it's going to be perfect," joked committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.).

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy, health IT and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mr. Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian started his career as an arts reporter and critic, and has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, Architect magazine, and other publications. He was an editorial assistant and staff writer at the now-defunct New York Press and arts editor at the online network in the 1990s, and was a weekly contributor of music and film reviews to the Washington Times from 2007 to 2014.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.

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