A recent conversation with Ellen Lord, the new undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, revealed her desire to make defense acquisition faster, compressing the timeline of requests for proposals, evaluation and contract award to 12 months.
One should take issue with this in one respect. The time spent from RFP up to award in 12 months or less is not a very high bar at all. In fact, this part of the acquisition process should be done in in less than 60 days, if not 30, which is still not aggressive enough.
“Never mistake motion for action.” – Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961)
However, what is understood to be included within the acquisition process is often muddled. The intent might better be stated that the entire Department of Defense acquisition (not only contracting) cycle — including requirements, definition and market research — occur within a year. For as all involved can attest, it’s the creation, coordination and validation process of the what and how (meaning the review and approval of acquisition decisions) that ensures delivery of systems that are almost technologically obsolete on Day One.
The more leaders (both executive and legislative branch), executives, managers, reviewers (both civilian and military) involved, the longer everything takes. The more decision responsibility is diffused, the longer it takes. The more complicated the process is designed to be, the longer it takes. The more unstable or unknown the budget is, the longer it takes. The more users involved in deciding what it is they want, the longer it takes. Acquisition is a leadership, bureaucratic and people issue; not a contracting, statutory or regulatory one.
“Men have become the tools of their tools.” – Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862)
In all cases, the Defense Department leads in quantity of people (especially senior people), numbers of sub-organizations, secretariats, directorates, commands, agencies, etc. DoD’s organizational structure is probably the most complex in the world.
There is the overall DoD, below which falls the undersecretaries, followed by many assistant secretaries, which run concurrently with four service secretaries, with consequent supporting staff and acquisition directorates, under which fall several acquisition and buying commands, joint commands, etc. Most Pentagon leaders will admit that what they start off intending to accomplish each day is often not what ends up the case. Work productivity becomes measured by the number and length of meetings — and how late people remain in their offices — versus time to product delivery.
“Sometimes it is not enough that we do our best; we must do what is required.” – Sir Winston Churchill (1874–1965)
Everyone above a certain rank has additional support staff, organizational oversight, internal processes and a management structure to be reinforced. This results in additional pre-reviews, restricted calendar availability, self-created purpose and relevancy, and expanded boxes to be checked. Combined with constant turnover in all positions, the program proponent or stakeholder often becomes lost in the maze, as they bounce from office to office, looking for support. Such help is often found in another shadow organization of consultants and other outsourced help, who are contracted for their expertise in knowing which organizational levers to push, combined with mastery of the art of briefing papers and PowerPoint.
Thus, a greatly reduced leader-to-doer percentage will increase progress. None of this is in the Federal Acquisition Regulation, but just as the FAR has grown, all the peripheral guidance and requirements has evolved over decades.
Yes, acquisition must be done in under a year. It must be. The ultimate inability of all involved in acquisition to get out of our own way to deliver national security against adversaries who can now quickly leap over technologies and ingrained defense capability complacency is nothing short of the highest national priority. Throwing more money at the problem isn’t the answer and, in fact, may be a contributor to the problem. Require internal change through a clearer, straighter path on the acquisition highway; not more expensive pavement on today’s circuitous road.
“Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal.” – Henry Ford (1863–1947)
As said before, it’s about the people. Risks must be taken and occasional failures allowed. But yes, it can be done. To have an idea and deliver that idea in the form of capability to war fighters can be done in less than a year! It has to be done.
“The most difficult thing is the decision to act; the rest is merely tenacity.” – Amelia Earhart
Michael P. Fischetti is executive director of the National Contract Management Association.