Why DIUx shouldn't exist

Image of the Pentagon 

In an ideal world, the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental would not exist. Not because the work it is doing is not needed or valuable, say acquisition experts, but because the military services would be doing it for themselves.

Section 809 of the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act created a panel dedicated to streamlining the defense acquisition process. At a House Armed Services Committee hearing, panel members said that in the next year they will be making "bold" recommendations on how to streamline defense acquisition.

"That will impact some particular constituencies, and there will be some hard decisions to make significant changes for us to move on and modernize this acquisition system," said panel commissioner Deidre Lee.

The panel is taking a deep dive into how to overcome long-identified barriers to innovation and rapid acquisition, including onerous compliance requirements, social policy regulations, resistance to using commercial solutions, competition and protest procedures and the over all decision making process in the Department of Defense.

Lee told FCW that the panel's eventual report will go into "excruciating detail" on regulations, statutes and procedures that have accumulated over the years and that need to be cleared away. The cumulative effect of such acquisition process "underbrush" is that many small- to mid-size tech companies do not want to do business with the DOD.

That is the bridge that DIUx in particular is trying to build through the use of existing Other Transaction Authority acquisition processes.

"Often when we have a problem we go set up these little special unique organizations and they do good stuff," Charlie Williams, a panel commissioner and former director of the Defense Contract Management Agency, told FCW.

"But at the end of the day, normally they aren't sustainable," he added. "You have to ask yourself a question: what's in the system that causes us not to be able to do that across the services that we have in place?"

"So that's what we want to understand, why doesn't the day to day business capability allow us to do those things rapidly?" Williams continued. "Why can't we use [other transaction authorities] more in our normal business?"

Williams said that one of the strengths of DIUx is its ability to create consortia of small businesses that would not on their own want to deal with the regulatory burdens of partnering with the DOD. Still, he said the right end state is getting the services to interface directly with small businesses without needing a DIUx intermediary.

DIUx has faced strong opposition from some in Congress who have argued it is too biased towards Silicon Valley and that it lacks a clear mission and metrics. The 2017 NDAA required DIUx to submit a report of its mission, staffing, metrics and other details to Congress before it can access all of its 2017 funding.

DIUx submitted that report earlier this year, but so far Congress has not determined whether it has satisfied the requirements to have the funding restrictions lifted.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) told reporters after the hearing that he needs to review the NDAA language to determine whether DIUx has met the requirements.

"My general sense is that they are doing better about getting their legs under them and being more productive," said Thornberry. "All of us are interested in pushing innovation, the only question is has DIUx been effective in pushing and achieving innovation?

"It takes some time... my sense is they're doing better," he said.

About the Author

Sean Carberry is a former FCW staff writer who focused on defense, cybersecurity and intelligence.


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