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Cut Red Tape: HASC Chair Thornberry Rolls Out 1st Major Acquisition Changes

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on


Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-TX

Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-TX

UPDATED: Here Is Bill That Thornberry Introduced On March 25

CAPITOL HILL: After over a year of preparation, House Armed Services chairman Mac Thornberry will announce Monday a plan to fix Pentagon procurement. In intentional contrast to past efforts at sweeping acquisition reforms, Monday’s child will be a relatively modest “increment one,” a committee aide told reporters. “The first step of a six-year project.”

Knotty problems like how to get Silicon Valley interested in Pentagon businessy, service contracts, contract protests, and the role of the military service chiefs are being very deliberately deferred for later years. What Thornberry will propose on Monday focuses on lower-hanging fruit — especially fixing the damage done by past reforms. A key theme of the legislation is speeding up the acquisition process by stripping away reporting requirements and redundant oversight imposed by Congress in the past.

“There were some things in WSARA [the Weapons Systems Acquisition Reform Act of 2009] that had unintended consequences,” the staffer told reporters, “[for] an example, competitive prototyping.”

Having at least two competing companies build full-up prototypes is a much better way to choose a winner than awarding the contract based on paper proposals alone. It’s also much more expensive and not always worth the extra cost. But WSARA made competitive prototyping mandatory, unless the program spent months jumping through bureaucratic hoops to get a waiver. The Thornberry legislation would remove the mandate and simply let program managers choose whether to use competitive prototyping or not, though they would have to justify their decision in their formal acquisition strategies.

Overall, “one of the themes would be reducing the red tape to empower the PMs [program managers] to do their job, because right now they’re not managing their programs; they’re managing the paperwork between the cubicles in the A and E ring [of the Pentagon],” the staffer said. “The closer they get to a Milestone B [decision], the less control that they have of their program, because you have somebody that isn’t held accountable [who] is holding up a piece of paper that needs an initial before you can walk that document to the next cubicle.”

Here’s how Army acquisition chief Heidi Shyu described the current process — to laughter and applause — at the recent McAleese Associates/Credit Suisse conference:

“It blows your mind, utterly blows your mind, because..,the PM is the driver of this very long bus and every stakeholder on the bus has a steering wheel and a brake,” Shyu said. “We have to file 68 documents before we can go from one milestone to the other and we have to have everybody on the bus concur….Anybody along the signing chain can say ‘no’ and slow you down. They’re a speed bump.”

“Shouldn’t everyone on the bus be there to help the program succeed, not to help the program fail?” said the staffer, invoking Shyu’s analogy. “If you’re going to be on that bus, everybody in some way shape or form needs to be held accountable…. It’s not about doing away with things, it’s about making a more clear line of authority, trying to put the PMs back in charge.”

For another example, the Thornberry plan gives program managers more discretion to choose between fixed-price contracts and cost-plus contracts. It eliminates the requirement for a waiver to go the cost-plus route. On the other hand, it adds the requirement to justify the decision in the program’s acquisition strategy.

Indeed, a program’s acquisition strategy would become much less of a formality and much more a tool for oversight under the Thornberry approach. Many reports and requirements that are currently handled as separate, time-consuming processes would be consolidated into a single  strategy document.

Other reports and requirements would simply go away. “Probably one of the biggest things,” the staffer said, is downgrading many “certifications” to mere “determinations”: That’s not just a change in terminology. It marks a major reduction in the amount of time and lawyers involved. Milestone A decisions to start developing technologies no longer require any certifications at all, only determinations. Milestone B decisions to start actual engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) would still require certifications, but not as many.

The Thornberry proposal would also allow more flexibility in military officers’ careers, allowing freer movement between operational and acquisition jobs. For the civilian workforce, it would make permanent the Defense Acquisition Workforce Development Fund, a pilot program currently set to expire in 2018.

Addressing a major headache for Pentagon contracts, the legislation would try to make more consistent determinations of whether a given product counted as a “commercial item.” Instead of some parts of the Defense Department buying a product as a commercial item and other agencies buying the same thing under different rules, it would be a once-and-for-all determination applying to the whole department.

On the other hand, Thornberry defers the question of giving the chiefs of the four armed services more authority over acquisitions, a longstanding issue most recently raised by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno. “The service chiefs talk about how they want more acquisition authority,” the staffer said. “While it’s certainly a good discussion to have, at this point we’re not really sure what is the problem that…they think needs to get fixed… So what we do is we basically direct them to tell us, what’s wrong, why do you think this is a problem, [and] what would you change?”

Finally, the Thornberry language incorporates six of the seven procurement reforms Under Secretary of Defense Frank Kendall requested in the Pentagon budget. The seventh is not being rejected, staffers aid, it’s just complex enough — involving life cycle support for military equipment — that it’s still being considered.

So Monday’s proposal is hardly set in stone, the staffers emphasized. Thornberry will give an overview, the full language and description will come out Wednesday, and then the chairman welcomes comment and critique from all parties. Thornberry has already consulted with the Pentagon, industry, his Democratic counterpart Rep. Adam Smith, and Senate Armed Services chairman John McCain, but that back-and-forth will continue. In fact, the precise legislative language released this week will never come to a vote: Instead, it will serve as the first draft of provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2016.

“I would expect a similar drill every year that he’s chairman, looking at different things,” the staffer said. “This is the first step of a six-year project, for this chairman anyway, and he plans on making this one of his top priorities for every year he’s chairman.” (GOP committee chairs are term-limited to six years). “So I would say this is like increment one of what the chairman wants to do, to tackle certain things [this year], and to tackle more things next year and the year after that and the year after that.”

Thornberry’s objective isn’t just budgetary, it’s strategic. “When he looks at acquisition reform, you can look at it from a cost perspective, saving money, which is an important issue,” the staffer said, “but the bigger issue for him, which he has said on many occasions, is the technology superiority piece.” As technological advancement accelerates and proliferates around the world, the US can no longer afford to take years or decades fielding new weapons systems. Congressionally imposed bureaucracy doesn’t just waste money, it wastes time — the one thing you can never get back.

What do you think?