Why too many technology solutions fall short

Three groups have competing equities in defense IT acquisition, and learning to balance risk among them is the key to success.

balanced spheres

Let's face it: IT acquisition is hard, especially in the Defense Department. More often than not, the delivered solution falls short in one, if not all three, of the following areas: It is over budget, it does not satisfy the end user, or it is a cybersecurity challenge.

Solutions fail because we have not yet cracked the code on balancing risk among the three groups that have competing equities in IT acquisition.

Group 1 controls the money. These are the CIOs, acquisition officers, program executives and military service staff members responsible for submitting annual program and budget proposals. They are collectively driven toward IT efficiency within the constraints of myriad directives, regulations, laws and contracting standards -- none of which tend to be particularly conducive to satisfying the requirements of the other two stakeholder groups in IT acquisition.

Group 2 is responsible for operating and defending the networks, services and applications that make up the DOD information network. U.S. Cyber Command and its attached service components are responsible for operating and defending most, but not all, of the information network. The command establishes security standards and practice, but it has no directive authority in the acquisition process.

Group 3 consists of the operators. These are the people who need freedom of maneuver to operate in the environment that Group 1 buys and Group 2 operates and defends. The term "operators" is very broad in this context. It includes unit commanders, logisticians, medical providers, personnel officers and many others. And I challenge you to find an "operator" who does not have to routinely alter his or her operational approach due to the limiting characteristics of the provided technical solution.

So how do we balance the equities of the three groups? Some would say that is the job of the CIO. In my experience, CIOs are neither sufficiently empowered nor properly staffed to balance risk across the three groups. And it is all about risk management.

The three groups are not going to come to consensus on where to take risk. The resource people frequently do not understand the operations. The security people can tend to be risk-averse to the point where operational effectiveness is unnecessarily degraded. And the operations people do not want to be bothered with the messy details of acquisition or security. They just want it to all magically come together to satisfy their specific needs.

One possible solution would be to appoint a responsible, qualified individual with an independent small staff that sits above these three groups and has directive authority over the resources. The function of this office would be to balance risk across the three groups in a way that efficiently allocates resources to achieve an acceptable level of operational effectiveness at an acceptable level of security. The staff must have the appropriate mix of experts from each of the three equity groups and the entire office must report directly to the senior leaders of the service or department as appropriate.

Understanding that we are stuck in a quagmire of competing equities is just the first step. We must also find a way for the three groups to be active, collaborative and integrated throughout the acquisition, testing, deployment and sustainment of the technical solution. And, of course, we have to get faster. Buying yesterday's technology tomorrow will not satisfy DOD's requirement for freedom of maneuver in cyberspace.

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