Defense Department file photo

Defense Acquisition Reformers Propose Streamlining Authority, Empowering the Workforce

Industrial Association weighs in as Armed Services panels change leaders.

With new chairmen on deck at both the House and Senate Armed Services panels, the National Defense Industrial Association on Tuesday released detailed recommendations for streamlining the Pentagon’s weapons buying process to curb waste, upgrade the acquisition workforce and take better advantage of industry innovation.

The report, titled “Pathway to Transformation,” the product of eighth months of consultation with lawmakers, Defense Department leaders and industry specialists, arrives as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., prepares to take the gavel for the new Republican majority at the Senate defense panel and Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas -- who has been working on acquisition reform for more than a year -- takes over from Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., on the House side.

The association’s recommendations -- prepared at the congressional panels’ request -- fall under three themes: authority and accountability, “matching requirements to resources," and “evidence-based decision making." And, unlike many similar reports, each proposal comes with specific implementation guidance, be it language for legislative changes, oversight plans or budget proposals.

“Forcing ourselves to come up with implementing guidance brought some discipline to our process, and there were recommendations that we did not include in the final report because there was no way of implementing them that would guarantee a positive outcome,” said lead co-author Jon Etherton, a senior fellow at the association who specializes in acquisition law and policy. “In producing these final recommendations, we took the Hippocratic approach, ‘First do no harm.’ ”

Maj. Gen. Arnold Punaro, the association’s board chairman, said, “To have the world’s finest military, you need three things: high-quality people, realistic and continuous training, and cutting-edge technology. We in industry provide the cutting-edge technology, and we have to make sure we maintain our technological edge in an affordable way.” Too often in the past, the acquisition community has resisted  “once-and-for-all reform,” he added. “Continuous improvement of the acquisition system will be a journey, not a destination.”

The industry association focused more on weapons systems than contracting of services, diagnosing the system’s long-standing ills to include  “overly complex acquisition laws, regulations, and their enforcement bureaucracy [that]  create unclear lines of authority and accountability in program management.”

Stressing the need to improve audits to assure reporting compliance, the report asserted that current audit requirements exceed Defense Contract Audit Agency capabilities and resources.

 “Recent statements by DCAA leaders indicate that 40 percent of DCAA personnel have five or fewer years … in government auditing, which, when combined with vigorous assertions of audit independence, can lead to wastefully expensive audit practices,” it said. “Decentralized DCAA management allows variation in practice and culture among its auditors which can also be unhelpful.”

Under the theme of authority and accountability, the report recommended “providing broad authority to acquisition decision makers, clarifying and shortening their chains of command, centralizing acquisition authority and responsibility, and holding those responsible.”

Concretely, that means creating a Defense Streamlined Programs Pilot authority to “add managerial judgment and flexibility to the acquisition process” while permitting individual service chiefs more authority than the current multi-service Joint Requirements Oversight Council. The report encouraged “creative acquisition strategies, streamlining the process for commercial item determinations, and facilitating government and industry collaboration on the path forward for intellectual property rights.” And it recommended “empowering and rewarding government employees to bolster the absolutely essential dialogue with industry.”

Under matching requirements to resources, the association recommended “limiting the requirements levied on the acquisition system to the resources provided to it. That could involve “a process for sunsetting new and existing acquisition requirements in statute, or alternatively convening an expert panel to review and reduce the requirements in the current body of acquisition law.”

And to attract top talent, it recommended “fully funding the Defense Acquisition Workforce Development Fund on a stable basis, and making the acquisition profession more attractive to capable and talented military personnel.”

Under evidence-based decision-making, the report said the Government Accountability Office should study such systemic problems as the “possible abuse of the bid protest process by contract incumbents,” and the impact on innovation of the lowest-price technically acceptable source selection method.

And it recommended taking full advantage of “big data” advances in automated information collection and analysis to “improve the quality and reduce the manual burden of acquisition program reporting requirements.

The association blamed some of the acquisition process’ problems involving cost overruns and cancelled major weapons projects on negative press coverage. “The independent media and outside organizations’ judgments of the performance of a federal program or agency have a major impact on perceptions and the support of the public and Congress for a given set of policies over time,” it stated.

Congress, once it gets past this month’s lame-duck session that must fund the government, is apt to take acquisition reform seriously. McCain, along with the outgoing Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., in October released a wide-ranging collection of acquisition reform essays. Four themes included proposals to incentivize the workforce, attract and train a qualified workforce, instill greater realism in program requirements, and create a stronger role for service chiefs in program management.

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