Congress is Sending Mixed Messages on Defense Procurement

The landscape is littered with the remains of scores of previous reform efforts.

Think Bold. That’s the slogan of the so-called "Section 809 Panel," a special commission created by Congress to review the full spate of federal (and defense-unique) acquisition laws, rules and practices. The goal is to provide lawmakers with a set of recommendations for legislative or administrative redress that will help improve the speed and performance of the defense acquisition system and open its aperture to the full array of available capabilities.

At a recent but little noticed hearing before the House Armed Services Committee, panel chair Deirdre Lee and several of her fellow panelists made eminently clear the need for substantial change, stating outright that the current acquisition system is simply incapable of getting the job done. The pace and scope of technological developments, the changing nature of the requisite workforce, the dramatic shift in technology ownership and leadership, and the numerous regulatory and policy requirements that too often wall the government off from needed solutions were among the reasons the panelists were so unanimous in their belief that truly bold action is required. And that’s exactly what they promised their final report would deliver.

Sound familiar? It should. The landscape is littered with the remains of scores of similar efforts conducted over the last 30 or more years. Some, like the Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act and the Clinger-Cohen Act of the 1990s were highly impactful and led to major reforms to the system. Others made positive differences but generally in limited ways, while too many others ultimately changed very little. Moreover, as the panel members pointed out at the hearing, even some of the most significant reforms of the past have since been diluted by a seemingly endless set of new regulations and limitations.

It is that checkered history that has caused more than a few, myself included, to view the panel with a supportive but nonetheless skeptical eye. Would they really step out in ways we haven't seen in the last 20 years? Based on their testimonies, as well as the tenor of the two meetings I have been privileged to have with them, the indications are that bold could indeed be the theme of their final report. And that's good news. Because the times definitely demand bold thinking. In fact, the title of a new report from my friend and former colleague Jeff Bialos, et al, says it all: "Driving Defense Innovation in a Change Resistant Ecosystem."

Ironically, that message is not at the core of the Armed Services Committee's acquisition "reform" agenda for this year. Chairman Mac Thornberry, who has been a strong advocate for reform and has over the years demonstrated a real understanding of the counterproductive ways in which the government has distanced itself from so much innovation, has now released his proposed acquisition reform provisions for the 2018 defense authorization bill. And they are, I hate to say, anything but bold. Overall they reflect a fairly traditional set of proposals with only limited focus on the changing paradigms that surround and beset the government. Many of them, in fact, focus principally on increasing accountability in acquisition, which, while a core responsibility of the acquisition system, pales in importance to the need for thinking and acting very differently, for fostering an environment and set of processes that reflect the very different marketplace of today that the 809 Panel so crisply defined in its testimony.

Of course, it could be that Chairman Thornberry is simply waiting for the 809 Panel's final recommendations (due next year) before stepping out too aggressively. But in the meantime, messages do matter; and legislative proposals are often seen as sending strong messages. At a time when a new administration, particularly one that has dipped its toes in the acquisition waters in what many might call questionable ways, is still developing its management and acquisition agenda, those messages matter even more. What we really need today is a single, very simple message: Think Bold.