Auguste Rodin's "The Thinker" at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco.

Auguste Rodin's "The Thinker" at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. Shutterstock.com

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Viewpoint: We’ve Admired the Federal Acquisition Problem for Too Long

Agencies must inculcate cultures of experimentation and learning if the U.S. is to prevail economically and militarily.

On a recent trip to Tampa, I asked a consultant on my team supporting U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) Acquisition Technology & Logistics what accounts for the Command’s acquisition success. “It’s a mindset thing,” she replied.

Later that day, as I continued my visit to SOCOM’s contracting activity, I happened upon the essentials of that mindset. They were captured in an inscription painted on the wall in a heavily traveled hallway. It said: 

We never stop…

We never stop learning…

We never stop iterating…

We never stop experimenting…”

That mindset at SOCOM drives a culture born and sustained from the intensity of the mission and the close relationships, in proximity and bond of purpose, between special operators and the acquirers who support them. The tooth and the tail meld. The mindset is shared by all members of the team. It is expected of everyone. It pushes teams to find the best solutions at the speed of relevance.    

The SOCOM mindset is due, in large part, to a continuity of acquisition executive leadership, going back at least to the time of James (Hondo) Geurts and continuing today with James (Jim) Smith. Geurts, now assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition, and Smith have promoted the mindset. It is continuing to produce successful acquisition outcomes for SOCOM. In addition to traditional FAR/DFAR procurements, SOCOM procurement professionals are using what’s known as other transaction (OT) authority and the SOFWERX innovation hub to leverage the best of industry for SOCOM missions. The command receives a disproportionate share of Defense Department David Packard Excellence in Acquisition Awards because its acquisition teams never stop experimenting, learning and iterating. It is more than an inscription on the hallway wall—the mindset sets them apart. 

‘We’re Dealing With Real Issues’

The Homeland Security Department is inculcating the experimental mindset on a larger scale. Soraya Correa, the department’s chief acquisition officer, has aggressively leveraged the Procurement Innovation Lab and encouraged an experimental mindset to promote the testing and adoption of both FAR-based and, where applicable, OT authority. Due to her leadership, her teams have the confidence to explore the “white space” of processes that are permitted, if not explicitly outlined, by law. 

“It’s about creative people; it’s about fun. It’s about bringing teams together, collaborating to get the right answers,” Correa says. “We’re dealing with real issues and real threats. And so we’ve got to get solutions on the table as quickly and as effectively as possible.”

She and the Procurement Innovation Lab have become a touchstone for other departments seeking to take the road less taken. Her acolytes already are in senior roles within the department and in other departments where they are recognized as innovative federal acquisition leaders. 

The Air Force is creating a powerful form of the mindset, thanks to its leadership and a groundswell of support. Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, practices and aggressively promotes experimenting, learning and iterating. The Air Force is taking advantage of all the authorities available, including Small Business Innovation Research and Technology Transfer programs, to find and exploit technologies not traditionally available to solve its mission sets.  

Roper and Maj. Gen. Cameron Holt, Air Force deputy assistant secretary for contracting, are leading a rapid evolution (r-evolution) in Air Force acquisition. Their experiments include Kessel Run, where the department is breaking new ground in modern software acquisition, along with a commercial approach to category management that is yielding high returns through best business practices in buying commonly purchased goods and services. Roper and Holt challenge the Air Force acquisition community to experiment, learn and iterate—with their explicit leadership and top cover. 

Spreading the Mindset

Besides these organizations, there is a fast-growing network of “virtuous insurgents” spreading the same mindset. You can see them on social media, at conferences, and in innovation hubs across government. They range from the Hacking for Defense (H4D) academic program that is engaging students in solving national security problems, and the H4X movement to Partnership Intermediary Agreement organizations like SOFWERX, AFWERX and others.

These nonprofits serve as brokers between government and non-traditional suppliers who are averse to the cost, time hassle and threat to their intellectual property they associate with doing business with the government. A leader among the government insurgents is Ben McMartin, chief of the Army Ground Vehicle Systems Center Acquisition Management Office, whose Acquisition Innovation Roadshow team is evangelizing the mindset governmentwide.

Others can be found at the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU); Defense Entrepreneurs Forum; DHS Silicon Valley Innovation Unit; the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency’s NGA Outpost Valley; dozens of Other Transaction Authority consortia; FEDSIM, the Technology Transformation Service, Emerging Citizen Technology program, and other General Services Administration offices supporting governmentwide initiatives. The Acquisition Innovators Hub and Acquisition Innovators Daily email newsletter published by Anne Laurent, principal at The Agile Mind Thought Leadership Consulting, are great resources for finding and creating relationships with these leading purveyors and practitioners of the mindset.

The Office of Federal Procurement Policy and the Office of Management and Budget also are leading initiatives to encourage the mindset across government. In addition to the Acquisition Innovation Advocates, first organized in 2015, OFPP recently published Myth-Busting #4, to dispel misconceptions about perceived limitations that unnecessarily constrain value in FAR-based acquisition processes.

To share knowledge about and expand the use of strategies that work, I led ACT-IAC’s Institute for Innovation to engage with OFPP on four projects to identify successful acquisition innovations, along with the characteristics of innovation-friendly buying organizations—including those listed above. OFPP has proposed legislation to create a test-bed for innovation.  

The mindset of acquisition experimentation, learning and iteration is critical to enabling the government—both defense and civilian agencies—to keep up with the pace of technology and business change. It is essential if the United States is to prevail in the renewed major power competition for military and economic leadership in the world.

We have admired the problem for too long. Acquisition urgently needs an innovative, experimental mindset. Doing nothing is the biggest risk.  

Tim Cooke is the President and CEO of ASI Government LLC.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece mischaracterized the H4D academic program.