10 June 2009

Real Acq Reform

The Deputy Secretary of Defense (William Lynn III) wrote an editorial in the Washington Times (June 4, 2009), titled Real Acquisition Reform. I thought you might enjoy reading a few excerpts:

He starts by pointing out this problem is a longstanding issue:

"Problems are deeply entrenched and have developed over several decades," one study noted. "Too many of our weapons systems cost too much, take too long to develop, and, by the time they are fielded, incorporate obsolete technology." That was the troubling diagnosis of a blue-ribbon commission - in 1986. Yet despite repeated attempts at reform, including more than 130 commissions and studies, the core problems persist.

So, why is this latest attempt going to be any different? Well, for starters, he points out the leaders are different:

in Robert M. Gates, we have a defense secretary determined to correct the Pentagon's failure to quickly deliver lifesaving equipment and technologies to our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan - failures that led him to simply bypass the traditional procurement system in order to equip those forces with the unmanned aerial vehicles and explosive-resistant armored vehicles they needed.

I've always thought our tendency to throw out the "traditional procurement system" whenever we have a really important project should tell us something about the value of that system. If the traditional process can't be relied on to deliver the important projects, um, why use it at all? If we don't use it for systems that really matter, does that mean we do use it for systems that don't really matter? What are we doing building stuff that doesn't matter?

The article goes on to talk about "new mechanisms to prevent endless "requirements creep" in which the desire for an ever-elusive perfect system can result in no system being delivered at all."

I'm always encouraged when people acknowledge that the perfectionistic pursuit of a system that delivers everything... doesn't actually deliver. Far better to take the imperfectionist approach, which says "I would rather have something today than everything tomorrow ('cause tomorrow never comes)."

none of these reforms will work unless we are prepared to take a final step - reforming or canceling weapons programs that are not on track to provide our warfighters what they need when they need it. We have started making those hard decisions in our proposed budget for next year.

Rather than take a business-as-usual approach to troubled programs - simply readjusting our expectations for cost, schedule and performance - we've canceled programs like the $19 billion Transformational Satellite program. This was a classic example of a promising but unproven exotic technology.

I admit it - I get a warm feeling every time I see a big failing project get cancelled. It's not that I'm unsympathetic about the jobs that get lost, but the military technology development community isn't a jobs program. It's supposed to be about making stuff that needs to be "available when needed and effective when used." Plus, people love good leaders, and the decision to cancel a failing project is generally a sign of strong leadership.

And can I also point out there's a HUGE difference between developing a new technology and building a new system? Building a new technology involves a large degree of exploration & uncertainty, using immature & unproven stuff. The point is to try to bring something to maturity. Building a new system, on the other hand, is all about putting something in the field. It's got to rely on proven, mature technologies. We get in trouble when we call it a system development project and it's actually a technology development project. That's the kind of stuff that needs to get cancelled.

being tough-minded on acquisition reform is part of being serious about a strong defense

I love that line. Cutting spending on failed projects doesn't mean you're weak on defense. It means you're strong on defense.


David said...

"but the military technology development community isn't a jobs program"

Kudos. Spot on.

Mark said...

Sounds like a great article.

But the new color scheme of the blog just isn't working for me. For one thing, there is a paragraph or so towards the end that is in black text... on a black background. And some of the other colors (red, purplish) just don't do well with the black background either.

Clearly you didn't submit and receive approval (in triplicate) for the Blog Color Formatting Standardization And Templates Requirements Program For Formatting Colors On Blogs (BCFSATRPFFCOB).

If only you had followed the process correctly!

Dick Field said...

Good post, Dan, notwithstanding your brother's being cosmetically challenged! :>))

There are so many things wrong with Federal Acquisition, it can be emotionally exhausting just thinking about it. I am in the "little a" sector of Acquisition and live with the beast daily. Most of our lives in acquisition seem to be spent in things other than acquiring useful goods and services. Some scraps of recent memory to illustrate --

A contracting officer, commenting on the chief driver behind a major solicitation and source selection (lightly paraphrased): "The problem was, we designed the whole thing to be defensive [meaning, against protest, litigation, bad press, etc.]." Now, if that doesn't assure product over process, I don't know what does.

Another contracting officer, commenting on the high point of the day: "I got a voice mail from ____. They're going to respond to our demand letter today!" Oh, boy, they're about ready to tell us 'we'll see you in court'!

A data call: "Give us the program headcount of this contractor for last year - and make it quick(even 'though the contract has long since terminated)." It's the Acquisition Friday Follies!

These are just local examples I can reach out and touch. Now amplify that a million-fold and you will get an idea of the regulatory and litigious environment in which we attempt to do "little a" Government business these days. Sometimes I long for those heady days of the wireless network buildout, a-way back in the 90s, when nothing mattered but getting the product to market and getting the cell site up on the network to take calls. Our version of "downrange". You're a rich hero if you get it done, you're fired if you don't. --And it worked (just look around you at all the cell phones in use).

Sometimes I think Federal acquistion ought to be allowed to fail - like the big banks and GM - in order for meaning and reason to arise from the ashes.

. . . wow, for a second there, I felt FREE! But, now - there are data masters a-callin'.

The Dan Ward said...

Great stuff, all - and good catch on the black font / black backround... ooops!

I'll see what I can do to revert to a better color scheme.

Mark said...

Ahhh... much better. I like the blue.