Defense IT

Getting DoD to buy commercial IT

Shutterstock image.

Despite the best intentions of reformers, the Defense Department still does a poor job of acquiring and deploying off-the-shelf IT systems to meet its administrative and business needs, according to members of the IT Acquisition Advisory Council.

Language in the 1996 Clinger-Cohen reforms, a 2010 Defense Department directive on IT acquisition for business systems known as Section 804, and report language in recent defense authorization bills all encourage the use of commercial IT in non-weapons systems and lay groundwork for deploying agile acquisitions methodologies. But DoD has failed to incorporate those changes into the way the military buys IT, the group said in a July 25 letter to the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees signed by 15 senior retired DoD officials and IT-AAC executive director John Weiler.

"Disappointingly, agency efforts to implement these directives have fallen far short due to a lack of incentives and/or commercial IT expertise," the letter said. The problem is exacerbated by the inability of the DoD to drive IT development as it has in the past, because the U.S. military accounts for less than one-half of one percent of the global market for hardware and software, according to 2013 Gartner figures. Adding to the problem is the record of failure at DoD and across the government in trying to develop custom software solutions.

"All software development should be avoided like the plague. It is the highest risk aspect of all IT. If it exists, then you can buy it. If it doesn't exist, don't try to develop it. You will be highly unlucky," Weiler said at an Aug. 5 AFCEA event on defense acquisitions. 

For the audience of Pentagon acquisitions workers and others, Weiler and some of the other signatories of the IT-AAC letter preached the gospel that the existing Defense acquisition rulebook and the underlying law allow for more flexibility than is generally acknowledged. "You can go fast. You can be agile. You can buy commercial solutions and avoid the death spiral of software development," Weiler said.

But Weiler and others argued that management restructuring contained in the Senate version of the fiscal 2015 Defense authorization bill would stimulate change where it is needed – at the top. The bill, which is awaiting action by the full Senate, proposes to upgrade the current deputy chief management officer to chief management officer, nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. The CMO would have CIO responsibilities and budget authority over the acquisition of IT business systems, control the Information Assurance Directorate of the National Security Agency, report to the deputy secretary of Defense, and enjoy undersecretary rank just below the powerful undersecretary for acquisition, technology, and logistics in order of precedence.

The committee report accompanying the legislation predicts that a "strengthened CIO will provide better management and oversight of information technology, systems, and operations within DOD, including over the U.S. Cyber Command. Combining these offices also should produce some savings in overhead."

A similar push took place on last year's defense authorization bill, but didn't make the final cut. Former DOD CIO John Grimes noted that as a Senate-confirmed CIO, he had a seat at the table. "One of the problems my successor had – Ms. [Teri] Takai – she was not confirmed by the Senate. She couldn't get invited to staff meetings and she had no influence, and the whole time she was there, she only met with her boss the deputy secretary that one time," when she was asked to resign, Grimes said. Takai left the department in early May. She did not respond to requests for comment.

"It's a different situation when you're sitting up there as a PSA or politico," Grimes said, adding, "It's like a club out in corporate America."

As a practical matter, Weiler said in an interview with FCW after the event, unifying the management and CIO functions would drive efficiencies in improving business processes. "You're using technology to drive the business outcome, not buying technology separately from having a business agenda. If you look at corporate America, many of the CIOs have been elevated to the board of directors, or directly reporting to the chairman, because it's so important to drive the mission," he said. "Acquisition is not a mission. It's a support role. We're getting confused. We think getting a contract is an outcome. It's not an outcome."

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 and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.

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

Rising Stars

Meet 21 early-career leaders who are doing great things in federal IT.


Reader comments

Thu, Aug 7, 2014 jpf

To say "All software development should be avoided like the plague. It is the highest risk aspect of all IT. If it exists, then you can buy it. If it doesn't exist, don't try to develop it. You will be highly unlucky" is rather dumb considering the problem with developed applications is there are no repercussions for failure by contractors. I for one have seen many successful in-house projects without outside help and have seen many COTS products fail and cost the government far more money than custom development. Sounds like someone is working for private business and not what is best for the government.

Thu, Aug 7, 2014 John weiler IT Acquisition Advisory Council

It was a privileged to be a key part of AFCEA's Defense Acquisition conference, and have the support of so many distinguished defense officials who have co-signed this report to congress. The entire Roadmap is now posted for public comment at As. Dr. Jack Gansler accurately pointed to the most important ingredient in achieving long sought Defense IT Reforms, as LEADERSHIP, I believe Mr. Kendall now has an actionable Roadmap to guide his own organization towards an Agile/Best Practices approach the IT-AAC has been advocating since 2008.

Thu, Aug 7, 2014 RayW

"You can go fast. You can be agile. You can buy commercial solutions and avoid the death spiral of software development," Weiler said.

And have to redo everything every few years when the software is obsolete and in addition you have to learn a new system. We are finding that out on some of our systems that the vendor had made a decision to go with Microsoft 20 years ago - license issues, incompatibility issues, not wanting to work with our required environment for the upgrades (after all, we might be cheating them out of a couple of licenses), not wanting to limit the size of the distribution to what is needed without the bloat ware that adds points of failure. Oh, and these are stand-alone systems, no internet connectivity and Microsoft hates that and is fighting us getting site licensing for a distributable Win 7.

Two sides to the story, and it depends on what you need. Also, considering you have no control over third party software (as we see finally hitting the main news on hardware from places like China), you do not know what is hidden in the compiled and possible encrypted executable.

Just my paranoid two centavos.

Thu, Aug 7, 2014 Barry Dickman Washington, DC Area

This highlights the need for an agile acquisition strategy (e.g., using testing) within the federal government to offset/mitigate the risk of agencies - specifically testing products (for interoperability) before they are purchased by the government.

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group