Defense Department file photo

House Defense Acquisition Reform Plan Seen as Step in the Right Direction

Armed Services chairman would streamline “broken” system to boost workforce, regain tech edge.

After 16 months of anticipation inside the Pentagon and the defense industry, the House Armed Services Committee chairman earlier this week unveiled his plan for streamlining the acquisition process and enhancing workforce training.

 “More than being monetarily wasteful, dysfunction in the acquisition process is sapping America’s technological edge and robbing our military of agility in the face of multiplying threats,” Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said in a joint statement with committee ranking member Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash. “The acquisition system is slow and cumbersome, delivering vital equipment years late that underperforms and is difficult and costly to maintain.”

Industry groups were enthusiastic about the proposal, which address four broad areas: the workforce, acquisition strategy, streamlining the chain of command, and thinning out reporting requirements and paperwork.

“Chairman Thornberry’s legislation … is an important first step toward the reforms that are needed to make sure our government has access to the latest innovations the private sector has to offer," said Trey Hodgkins, senior vice president at the Information Technology Alliance for Public Sector. “These components for successful acquisition reform are not exclusive to the department of Defense, and we encourage Congress and the administration to leverage the chairman's analysis and groundwork for improved acquisitions governmentwide."

Roger Jordan, vice president for government relations at the Professional Services Council, called the plan “a very good document for industry and stakeholders to shoot at and have discussions -- definitely a step in right direction, though even the chairman recognizes a lot more needs to be done.”

To preserve and take advantage of the defense industrial base, the plan would “require training on the commercial market, including commercial market research to help close the gap between government and industry,” Thornberry told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Monday. “And we require specific ethics training for acquisition. To be the world’s fastest incorporator of commercial technology, there has to be a lot of interaction between government and industry, and it needs to be clear what is appropriate and what is not.”

To ease concerns about the capabilities of today’s contracting officers in light of a retirement brain drain, the plan would “empower the workforce by removing barriers to the best military officers choosing to pursue an acquisition profession and by making permanent funds for hiring and training the acquisition workforce,” according to a fact sheet.

It would also empower the workforce by simplifying the chain of command for acquisition decisions. “We make clear that the role of the testing community is to test [whether projects have met milestones] and advise, not to decide,” Thornberry said in his speech.

Some of the workforce solutions have been recommended by industry for five years, Jordan said, adding his group supports provisions seeking to spur greater reliance on existing commercial items and acquisitions. The plan recognizes the need for more data on how the Pentagon spends money on contractor services, Jordan noted. “We support that in advance of making any sweeping changes to service contract policy,” he said.

To reduce risk of cost overruns and unsatisfactory final products, the plan would “provide acquisition  programs  with  greater  flexibility  in  the ways  programmatic  risk  can  be  addressed. A one­‐size-fits­‐all approach to managing and reducing risk should not be required,” the plan summary said. It also encouraged “selection of appropriate contract types best suited to the program objectives and the level of program.”

Thornberry said he had spent the past 16 months studying past efforts at acquisition reform and listening to lawmakers of both parties as well as “folks at the Pentagon,” such as Undersecretary Frank Kendall, the service acquisition executives and the service chiefs, as well as trade associations, companies, individuals, authors, academics, retired defense officials, the Congressional Research Service and the Government Accountability Office. His staff has used the results to create a database of 1,000 specific ideas for acquisition reform in the future.

Beth McGrath, who for years was the Pentagon’s deputy chief management officer and is now a director of the federal practice at Deloitte, praised the plan for its approach to selecting contract types and “bringing government and industry together to enable a productive dialogue so that at the end of the day, the government can produce the items that enable the mission.”

She told Government Executive: “More interaction is great, but the challenge to bringing people in from industry is the conflict of interest issue. We need to educate people on the right way to do it because it’s in our collective national interest to do this.”

McGrath’s only criticism of Thornberry’s plan was that it stressed the development of military careerists in the acquisition specialty when civilian contracting officers, she said, are also important.