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Congress, Please Don’t Treat IT Purchases Special: Kendall Aide

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on


WASHINGTON: “Dear Congress: Please stop helping us. Sincerely, the Pentagon.”

That’s a form letter the Defense Department might do well to buy in bulk. It’s not what every administration official thinks every time a legislator comes up with an unsolicited bright idea, but when it comes to the thorny thicket of the military acquisition system, Congress’s attempts at reform have often just added to the problem. Now there’s another bright idea the Pentagon is trying to preempt: creating a special acquisition system for information technology.

Yes, IT moves fast and the current procurement system moves too slow, acknowledged Andrew Hunter, director of the Pentagon’s Joint Rapid Acquisition Cell (JRAC) and a point man for Undersecretary Frank Kendall on the Defense Department’s own in-progress package of reform proposals, slated for roll-out next year. But, Hunter warned the audience at the Brookings Institution Tuesday afternoon, he would “caution” against creating yet another process specifically to handle information technology.

“There’s high risk that it just furthers the problem rather than solving it,” Hunter told me when I pressed him for a blunter answer after his public remarks. “Having a separate system for this and a separate system for that — leave aside whether it’s IT or some other product or commodity — ultimately it’s just a set of inflexible systems rather than a single inflexible system,” he said with a grim laugh. “What we really need is the flexibility rather than the separate system.”

Besides, Hunter said, even if the separate-and-unequal system for IT purchases turns out to be more efficient than the regular process, how do you figure out what qualifies? More and more military equipment has computers in it, from energy-efficient electrical generators to handheld radios to fighter jets.

“Is the Joint Strike Fighter an IT program?” Hunter asked. With over 24 million lines of code, getting the F-35’s software to work has been one of the biggest of the big program’s many big problems (my characterization, not Hunter’s), so if any program could have benefited from a special track for information technology purchases, it’s probably JSF. “Even if we wanted to make that case, and it’s makeable, right,” Hunter went on, “is the Hill going to say, ‘oh, well, you don’t need to go through the MDAP [Major Defense Acquisition Program] process, because JSF’s an IT program, you can go through the streamlined process?’ Probably not going to fly.”

Instead, Hunter said, a defense program with a major IT component — and that’s most of them — would probably end up having to meet the requirements for both the normal system and the special one, doubling the bureaucratic cost and delay. In fact, the Defense Department already faces such double and even triple jeopardy on some existing programs.

“We actually have four separate systems within just the Department of Defense that provide oversight to acquisition programs [today],” Hunter had told the Brookings audience earlier. “Our classic acquisition system… the Clinger-Cohen process… Major Defense Acquisition Programs…MAIS [Major Automated Information Systems]….oh, and business systems.” (Yes, I counted five different systems there, too, but I think Hunter’s considering MAIS a sub-set of MDAP). One of those systems is in fact a specific process to “improve” IT acquisition, namely Clinger-Cohen: “We have an IT review process and we have an acquisition review process, so we basically duplicate,” he said. For a major program that involves information technology and business systems, said Hunter, “a program manager can be subject to three of those processes all at the same time.”

“I’d rather have one, really good, flexible system that is as streamlined as we can make it than a variety of smaller systems,” Hunter told me. The Pentagon buys everything “from toilet paper to tanks,” he said, from stealth fighters to lawn-mowing services. “Whatever system we have, it needs to be flexible enough to accommodate that incredibly vast range of goods and services that we have to buy.”

What kind of flexibility do they need? Hunter was cagey but he dropped some hints. “We’ve put some proposals forward to the Hill to give us some increased financial flexibility, through maybe rapid acquisition authority funds,” he said, continuing a system that provided quick response to battlefield demands during the post-9/11 wars. The administration would also like to be able to “reprogram” larger sums from one budget line to another — a process which, Hunter emphasized, requires congressional approval. “Rather than being able to have reprogramming of whatever it is, three percent of the defense budget, we’d like to see it closer to high single digits,” he told me with a nervous laugh.

But, I asked,  aren’t rapid acquisition and reprogramming both relatively modest slices of the massive Defense Department budget? “It’s at the margins,” Hunter acknowledged, “but at the margins of a $500 billion organization is still a substantial amount of money.”

Proposals for more fundamental changes are in the works, Hunter made clear. One obvious one he mentioned was shortening the congressionally imposed checklist of requirements that major programs have to meet at their official milestones. Some other reforms the Pentagon proposes may come as a surprise, however.

Kendall and co. are working hard to get real-world data on the performance of past acquisition reform measures, Hunter said, and that may lead to counterintuitive proposals. “Stay tuned for the next annual report on the performance of the defense acquisition system, coming very soon,” [UPDATE: in fact, Friday] he told the Brookings audience. “What we may find … is that we don’t all like what the data has to tell us, because some of our favorite pet policies may not come out looking favorable.”

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