Managing the biggest program of all: acquisition

Jordon Sims is director of organization relations and programs for the Project Management Institute.

Project and program management is a growing hot topic of discussion on the House and Senate floors, with acquisition reform being as the largest part of that focus. Earlier this year, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, introduced H.R. 1597, the Agile Acquisition to Retain Technological Edge Act with the aim of continuing to improve the Department of Defense's acquisition system.

Reps. Todd Young, R-Ind., and Gerry Connolly, D-Va., introduced H.R. 2144, the Program Management Improvement and Accountability Act of 2015, to the House on May 1, and Sens. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, and Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., introduced an identical companion bill, S. 1550, to the Senate on June 10. The need for standardized processes, accountability and efficiency in the DoD's acquisition program has long been recognized in government circles; now it's rightfully making agendas and headlines.

DoD and federal acquisition overall have had their share of program challenges over the years, as well as challenges with how to cohesively blend the skill sets needed for effective program delivery and outcomes. Unfortunately, acquisition programs often lack a consistent adherence to sound program management (PM) frameworks and instead rely on ad-hoc practices and training measures based on a checklist mindset. To change that way of doing things, there must be a way to adopt a culture that values the fundamentals of PM and allows the acquisition workforce to not only effectively manage each program based on its unique needs, but to actually lead them to success. Under Secretary of Defense Frank Kendall's intent to shift the focus of the acquisition mindset in the DoD from one of simple compliance towards one of effective program management for sound program structures overall remains highly encouraging when looked at with the rare consensus of legislative agreement to codify the effort going forward.

A closer look at the government's acquisition spending shows that standardized program management is not on the radar. The US government spends approximately $530 billion a year on contracting for goods and services overall. Within that $530 billion, according to recent Congressional Research Service data, the DoD spends 45 percent of its share (approximately $154 billion) on tangible goods such as major weapons systems acquisitions. The efforts of the PM cadre associated with this effort are governed by the most mature and robust PM competency framework within the federal government via the Defense Acquisition Workforce Improvement Act ( DAWIA ), which was legislatively driven following the passage of the Clinger-Cohen Act in 1996.

However, an equal proportion (45 percent) of the spending is focused on services outside of tangible goods and weapons systems ranging from seconded staff, to consulting, to IT, down to the janitorial services for facilities globally, leaving 10 percent for R&D on future acquisition programs. With the civilian side of the government even more focused on services at 68 percent services vs. 22 percent focused on goods, the lion's share of vulnerability for dollars at risk due to acquisition program management inefficiency is missing out on the support and direction provided via DAWIA training, Better Buying Power, and other incremental areas of well-intended improvement.

This speaks not only to a mismatch between improvement efforts and the balance of spending but also a lack of investment in the core competency and associated workforce needed to address acquisition system challenges government-wide: namely, the program management workforce.

The signs of struggle within the acquisition process are easy to spot and are happening daily. Old RFPs are dusted off and put back out for bidding without any updates. Contracts don't capture requirements or risk from a program management point of view due to siloed efforts. Input from systems engineers and R&D from a technical perspective remains further isolated. An artificial divide post-acquisition and program delivery prevents a feedback loop that would share invaluable information on operations, sustainability, and retirement of a program further reducing opportunity for strategic impact by the PM workforce on future efforts. The end result of these challenges remaining unchecked by a program management culture shift is the continued presence of numerous acquisition efforts by agencies often considered the most robust in capability on the GAO High Risk List for 2015, along with the new addition of IT Acquisition.

Improving the acquisition system overall starts with improving requirements definition during the program planning stage. According to PMI's 2014 Pulse of the Profession® study , poor requirements management is a major cause of project failure, second only to changing organization priorities. One in two (53 percent) say they fail in using formal process to validate requirements in an unbiased way.

Improving requirements management and breaking down silos within the organization can be accomplished in part by embracing program management and making it part of the organization's DNA. PMI research shows that when organizations invest in development and training for professional program managers, they achieve superior program performance and execute strategic initiatives more successfully. DAWIA started this process in DoD – but now needs to be updated for the current defense environment. Beyond DoD the entire federal program management workforce needs the same support as their defense counterparts.

It is also necessary to have program managers who are able to leverage these crucial skills for BOTH goods and services. The PMI Talent Triangle demonstrates the mix of skills that a successful program manager now needs to overcome obstacles, navigate hindrances and lead teams to successful outcomes.

Any initiative that is aimed at helping the government get a clearer look at its spending and improve the efficiency and effectiveness of its acquisition efforts is a worthwhile endeavor, especially if it affords the opportunity to leverage lessons learned government-wide. But until government acquisition is approached via standardized program management frameworks across both goods and services, the risks of high costs and uncertainty will see the same long shelf life as numerous GAO High Risk list programs.

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