By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

On the front lines of acquisition

 I spoke yesterday at a contracting conference for the Los Angeles Air Force Base, which buys space systems, and used the occasion to open things up for a discussion with the crowd about some of the contracting issues people are talking about these days.  (The weather, incidentally, was a dry, sunny mid-70's  -- about 25 degrees Celsius for non-American blog readers -- the kind of advertisement for life in southern California that this beleagured area probably needs these days.)
I asked them what they thought of the move to exert greater "requirements discipline," which means holding off on constant requirements changes until an initial version of a new system had been fielded. When I polled the audience, all but one hand went up to say they generally liked the idea.  (The contracting community has traditionally been somewhat more positive to this idea than the program community.)  However, people were quick to note practical issues.  If programs get an initial version of a new system out earlier and then begin to develop upgraded versions, will each upgrade be subject to a decision of whether to proceed that puts the program at risk? Another participant noted that requirements changes can be good. Sometimes they scale down requirements that would have taken much more time and cost much more money than originally thought.
Somewhat disappointingly (to me), people seemed to report generally poor experiences with efforts to bring more commercial off-the-shelf items (COTS) into weapons subsystems. COTS integration was often more expensive and risky than originally thought, and some COTS parts have had durability or reliability problems under military use conditions.  There is a community out there that I respect a lot who remain advocates of more COTS in weapons systems -- I think of my friends Jacques Gansler at the University of Maryland and Stan Soloway of the Professional Services Council -- and it would be interesting to hear their viewpoint on these issues.
People, to my surprise, generally liked efforts to promote greater partnership between the government and contractors, as opposed to an arms-length approach where the government's major role is control and oversight. While people seemed to agree that there should be a balance, the statement by one person in the audience that "the only way we get things accomplished is through partnership" appeared to meet with general approval. Another person said he liked the phrase "industry partner" better than "contractor." The government needed strong technical people to exert necessary checks on contractors, but there was unease at the current "contractors are crooks" sentiment.
(Speaking of which, several people spontaneously expressed unease at the new stance of the Defense Contract Audit Agency  towards government contracting officials. DCAA seems to be becoming more like an inspector general, which is creating a lot of resentment among contracting professionals. Congressional criticisms of DCAA appear to have inspired the shift.)
At breakfast, Joy White, head of contracting at the base, told me she agreed with some of my recent writing on revitalizing the use of past performance in government. We didn't have a chance to talk about that during the session, but this is a theme I plan to continue to push.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Aug 07, 2009 at 12:08 PM


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