By Steve Kelman

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Live-blogging the acquisition research conference

Right now, I'm feeling like a genuine blogger — I am sitting at the annual acquisition research conference sponsored by the Naval Postgraduate School and blogging in real time, more or less. I posted a Facebook status update two days ago saying that I was going to the conference, and somebody commented, "Tough assignment." Actually, the Monterey weather in May is typically awful — drizzling, foggy and low 50's. This time, I am pleased to report that, although it's cool, it's sunny and bright today.

The theme of this year's conference — which this year seems to have its largest attendance I've seen, perhaps almost 300 people, (hope my intuitive estimates aren't wrong here!) — is "Defense Acquisition in Transition." To judge by the opening panel, people on the one hand have an agenda for change in defense acquisition that has some overlap with the change agenda that's out there in the political system, but there is much more worry about what the political system will direct than was the case for the contracting changes of the 90's, which were to a much greater extent welcomed inside the government workforce.

Based on this morning's introductory panel, with representatives from government, industry and academia, there is pretty universal consensus around the idea that the acquisition workforce needs to be upgraded both in terms of quantity and quality. An interesting chart presented at the panel showed that, while the Department of Defense acquisition workforce declined by about a quarter during the Clinton administration, defense procurement spending declined at even a greater rate, so the story that the workforce crisis was a result of the changes of the 90's (particularly given the streamlining changes such as the government credit card that allowed a lower workforce at a given level of spending) just doesn't correspond to the data. However, of course, during the last eight years, procurement spending soared, while the size of the workforce increased only marginally. Interestingly, even the industry representative on the panel said industry wants govenrment to have smart buyers — not having smart buyers is bad for industry, both because it hurts honest contractors not to have dishonest ones caught, and also because bad contracting hurts the reputation of contracting as a method to deliver government services, which hurts contractors as well as agencies and taxpayers.

There also seemed to be consensus — even the industry representative didn't dissent — around the idea, embraced by the GAO, Congress and the administration — of trying to deal with weapons systems cost growth by reducing requirements changes and fielding more-proven technologies. It will be interesting to see whether, after this idea being presented for so many years, there is actually progress in this area.

At the same time, there was worry about over-regulation and inappropriate policies coming from Congress and the Administration — and something of a wariness about the politics of "acquisition reform" (again, in contrast to the 90's, where proposals for change came from inside the system). The Levin-McCain bill was seen as mostly repeating policies already in place, such as an independent cost estimation capability in DOD (which has existed for more than 30 years). There was horror expressed — like at the National Contract Management Association World Congress a few weeks ago, which I have written blogs and a column about — about too much emphasis on fixed-priced contracts, particularly fixed-price development contracts for weapons systems.

And a government representative bemoaned the general attitude of elected officials towards the government workforce: "I think about being a parent," he said. "If all you do is criticize your kids and never praise them, you won't get the kind of kids you hope for."

Posted by Steve Kelman on May 13, 2009 at 12:08 PM


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