DOD acquisition reform focused on people, not processes

Frank Kendall

DOD Undersecretary Frank Kendall underscored the urgency for acquisition reform in light of stagnant budgets and greater demands for efficiency and savings.

There is a long list of hurdles to defense acquisition reform, including overly complex requirements, the "use it or lose it" mentality baked into the system because of the risk that unobligated funds might not be appropriated again and the frequent rotation of leadership in top positions.

At a July 10 hearing of the House Armed Services Committee, Chairman Buck McKeon added Congress to the list of possible culprits that are slowing the pace of change and improvement.

The California Republican, who is retiring at the end of the 113th Congress, noted that the annual passage of a defense bill has resulted in laws and requirements "that have made your jobs harder." With a glance at his anointed successor, Vice Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), McKeon said, "Are we looking at the end of the road? Is this going to make things better or harder, and start with ourselves here in Congress?"

Frank Kendall, undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, underscored the urgency for acquisition reform in light of stagnant budgets and greater demands for efficiency and savings while trying to keep pace with changing technology. He said his mission is to sustain efforts under the Better Buying Power initiative launched in 2010 by former undersecretary Ashton Carter. As Kendall sees it, about four to five years of sustained effort -- and a precipitating crisis -- are necessary to foster cultural change in an organization.

"I'm trying to supply the leadership, and the budget situation is supplying the crisis," Kendall told the committee.

He said IT "covers a huge amount of ground" in defense acquisitions, including network infrastructure, business systems, national security IT systems and IT embedded in weapons systems. Kendall noted that the acquisition of business systems was recently brought under his control to prevent more failures along the lines of the scrapped $1.2 billion Expeditionary Combat Support System managed by the Air Force, which was the subject of a recent Senate report.

"I think we can do a lot better in this area," Kendall said. "We need professionals in this area. Business systems are somewhat unique. IT infrastructure is somewhat unique. We need people who really understand these areas technically both in terms of how they work but also how to acquire them and how to transition them.

"We also need to do a better job across the department of homogenizing our requirements," he said, adding that Acting Defense Department CIO Terry Halvorsen is working on that under the Joint Information Environment strategy.

"We would like to make a larger investment in this area so that we can move faster, but it's difficult to do that in the current climate," Kendall said.

He also waded into an ongoing controversy about the Distributed Common Ground System-Army (DCGS-A). The $4 billion system, used to aggregate intelligence and mapping data, has not performed as advertised in Afghanistan, is prone to crashing and is hard to use. Although many in the ranks have sought to acquire the commercial intelligence analytics tool Palantir for use in Afghanistan, the Pentagon hierarchy has resisted. Kendall said different user groups have different needs.

"The two systems bring different virtues to the table, basically," Kendall said. "Palantir is very good at some things. It's a very intuitive system. A lot of our operators who are not career intelligence people like it because of its intuitiveness, and it's very easy to work with. DCGS-A brings an awful lot of other capabilities that our intelligence analysts need. And I believe the Army is working to bring Palantir-like technology into DCGS-A."

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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Reader comments

Mon, Sep 8, 2014 Jaime GracIa Washington, D.C.

The defense acquisition workforce are in need of professionalization, and what can also be torched is the way they are trained. The DAWIA training by DAU is clearly inadequate to the teach the workforce about buying in today's market, especially when it comes to technology and services. Combined with a process designed for buying weans systems as commodities, reform efforts are window dressing at best until fundamental changes are made to the workforce.

Sat, Jul 12, 2014 Defense Insider United States

OSD ATL staff continue to ignore the overwhelming evidence that the process needs to be replaced, as Gen Arnie Punaro suggested "put a match to it". Yet, under the tight grip of the biggest benefactor of the status quo, Mitre's negative influence on past reform efforts is more visible now than ever. OSD has failed to comply with numerous laws, but has not been held accountable;
- Clinger Cohen Act, failing to streamline IT Acquisition or given favor to COTS solutions, and change business processes not the products (why AF ECSS failed).
- Failure to implement NDAA Section 804 which directed DOD to ADOPT an Agile Acquisition process tuned for the fast paced IT market. Instead, Mitre helped put new lipstick on the DOD5000 pig.
- Failure to uphold the rule of law governing use of FFRDCs who unfairly compete with industry. Professional Services Council's best efforts have not slowed down these abuses.
- Failure to hold anyone accountable for massive failures across DOD, they only get promoted out of the organization.

If Kendall will not hold his people and contractors accountable, maybe its time to hold him accountable for these failures to uphold the rule of law.

No wonder more high tech companies are leaving the Defense sector than are coming in.

Fri, Jul 11, 2014

I'm heartened to hear leadership talking about the effects of funding on the effectiveness of acquisition. Missing is the discussion about the highly negative effect of Congressional Inquiries on the process. The way Congressional Inquiries appear to be run, they are witch hunts, looking for someone to blame for political points. That results in a risk averse acquisition organization where people are afraid to take chances (despite the FAR's admonition to do that which is in the benefit of the Government). Risk is necessary for success and punishing failure results in an organization which avoids risk and by avoiding risks, avoids efficiencies, learning and growth.

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