DOD acquisition reform focused on people, not processes

Undersecretary Frank Kendall sees cultural change taking root among the Pentagon's 150,000-strong acquisition workforce.

Frank Kendall

DOD Undersecretary Frank Kendall underscored the urgency for acquisition reform in light of stagnant budgets and greater demands for efficiency and savings.

There is a long list of hurdles to defense acquisition reform, including overly complex requirements, the "use it or lose it" mentality baked into the system because of the risk that unobligated funds might not be appropriated again and the frequent rotation of leadership in top positions.

At a July 10 hearing of the House Armed Services Committee, Chairman Buck McKeon added Congress to the list of possible culprits that are slowing the pace of change and improvement.

The California Republican, who is retiring at the end of the 113th Congress, noted that the annual passage of a defense bill has resulted in laws and requirements "that have made your jobs harder." With a glance at his anointed successor, Vice Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), McKeon said, "Are we looking at the end of the road? Is this going to make things better or harder, and start with ourselves here in Congress?"

Frank Kendall, undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, underscored the urgency for acquisition reform in light of stagnant budgets and greater demands for efficiency and savings while trying to keep pace with changing technology. He said his mission is to sustain efforts under the Better Buying Power initiative launched in 2010 by former undersecretary Ashton Carter. As Kendall sees it, about four to five years of sustained effort -- and a precipitating crisis -- are necessary to foster cultural change in an organization.

"I'm trying to supply the leadership, and the budget situation is supplying the crisis," Kendall told the committee.

He said IT "covers a huge amount of ground" in defense acquisitions, including network infrastructure, business systems, national security IT systems and IT embedded in weapons systems. Kendall noted that the acquisition of business systems was recently brought under his control to prevent more failures along the lines of the scrapped $1.2 billion Expeditionary Combat Support System managed by the Air Force, which was the subject of a recent Senate report.

"I think we can do a lot better in this area," Kendall said. "We need professionals in this area. Business systems are somewhat unique. IT infrastructure is somewhat unique. We need people who really understand these areas technically both in terms of how they work but also how to acquire them and how to transition them.

"We also need to do a better job across the department of homogenizing our requirements," he said, adding that Acting Defense Department CIO Terry Halvorsen is working on that under the Joint Information Environment strategy.

"We would like to make a larger investment in this area so that we can move faster, but it's difficult to do that in the current climate," Kendall said.

He also waded into an ongoing controversy about the Distributed Common Ground System-Army (DCGS-A). The $4 billion system, used to aggregate intelligence and mapping data, has not performed as advertised in Afghanistan, is prone to crashing and is hard to use. Although many in the ranks have sought to acquire the commercial intelligence analytics tool Palantir for use in Afghanistan, the Pentagon hierarchy has resisted. Kendall said different user groups have different needs.

"The two systems bring different virtues to the table, basically," Kendall said. "Palantir is very good at some things. It's a very intuitive system. A lot of our operators who are not career intelligence people like it because of its intuitiveness, and it's very easy to work with. DCGS-A brings an awful lot of other capabilities that our intelligence analysts need. And I believe the Army is working to bring Palantir-like technology into DCGS-A."

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