Backseat drivers plague procurement

Shutterstock image: developing a plan.

Top defense acquisition managers likened the procurement process in the armed services to a dysfunctionally piloted bus with dozens of backseat drivers -- and did so in front of some of those drivers.

"Each seat on the bus is equipped with its own steering wheel and brakes, but no accelerator," Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology Heidi Shyu said during an April 22 hearing before the Senate Armed Services Readiness and Management Support Subcommittee.

Each of the drivers, she said, was capable of steering the vehicle in their own direction at the expense of the other drivers. The only thing each couldn't do was drive the bus forward.

The Senate and House Armed Services committee have made defense acquisition reform a priority, though congressional micromanagement has sometimes been cited as one of the problems with the process.

Shyu, who worked in the private sector before joining the Army's acquisition operations, said such jarring dysfunction wouldn't fly outside government.

But the multitude of interests in the federal government are difficult to align, she said. Empowering the program manager while guiding promising and talented acquisition personnel in more agile and innovative practices are keys to the future. "Not more documentation," she said.

Sean Stackley, assistant secretary of the Navy for research, Development and acquisition, said he "concurred wholly" with Shyu's assessment, and added that budget uncertainty only compounds the difficulties.

New capabilities could alleviate some of the challenges of a tightening fiscal environment, he said, citing agile development and making better use of open architecture as reforms that could go speed up procurement.

"Agility is fundamental to acquisition," said William LaPlante, assistant secretary of acquisition for Air Force. The ability to fail fast, along with building in modular approaches to contracts that allow projects to change direction more effectively are also keys to more efficient defense contracting.

Shyu, Stackley and LaPlante all agreed that the most important ingredient for reforming defense acquisition is the people who do it day to day.

"Building a highly skilled acquisition workforce is the single most important piece," said Stackley.

But even hiring a promising acquisition worker is a problem. "A month is a long time to take to hire someone in industry," she said. "It takes eight to nine months in the government."

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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