Wednesday, April 29, 2009

DoD Acquisition Chief Leaves Post by Firing Parting Shots

In a refreshing piece of candor, outgoing Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology & Logistics John J. Young, Jr. gave his final media roundtable, where he expressed concerns that the attention being paid to acquisition reform and revamping the acquisition process will lead to more regulations and oversight, and put additional burdens on the acquisition community. Of particular concern was the need to allow acquisition professionals to focus on running their programs:

…"The process we're heading further into is a tax code-like governance process for defense acquisition," Young said. "The more we do this, the more program managers will have to do to comply and they'll spend less time managing their programs."…

I share this concern with Mr. Young, particularly with the focus on contracting tools and procedures that have come out of the White House in President Obama’s OMB directive, and the possible handcuffing of contracting tools by limiting cost type contracts in favor of fixed type contracts. What I am referring to is the creation of further regulations and legislative actions that do not make sense, and may make the difficult jobs of acquisition professionals even harder. Further, these legislative actions rarely are done with a concern for empirical data and impact on costs, as legislators only focus on perceived benefits which also are difficult to measure without a sound business case for why a change may be needed. The costs of implementing legislation should never exceed the desired outcomes or benefits, but this type of logic is demanded by acquisition leaders without being considered by the same legislators who create the legislation in the first place.

Also of note in his comment was his attention to program managers. I am not sure if he misspoke, but the acquisition process would be best served by having a fully functioning IPT of both program personnel (program mangers, engineers, budget analysts, etc.) and contracting personnel (contracting officer, COTR, etc.). In reality it is the contracting personnel that have to adhere to the burdensome rules for acquisition execution, while program managers often are faced with different challenges in respects to acquisition regulations in the execution of programs.

I applaud and thank Mr. Young for his service, as he mentioned his focus during his tenure:

…"People run programs, not documents and processes," he said. "You need to have good people and leave room for judgment to get the best deal for the taxpayer."…

Acquisition reform cannot, and should not, focus just on processes and legislation. It needs to focus on rebuilding a workforce that has been decimated by underdevelopment and being undervalued, which requires a focus on changing the culture of the federal government such that acquisition professionals are seen as strategic business advisors and not an impediment to progress. The approach needs to be balanced, as although Stimulus funding was provided for acquisition workforce improvement issues, I do not believe it is nearly enough to fund workforce issues at civilian agencies when compared to DoD.

One comment from Mr. Young, sadly, was his perceived inability participate in the economy:

…"I don't think you should come into this building and essentially give up any right to participate in the economy," Young said. "You get paid a salary, but beyond that you become almost a monk and get all kinds of restrictions levied on you trying to help your country and do the right thing."…

I don’t think anyone comes into federal service with the intention on getting wealthy. Mr. Young, I am sure, has a very specialized and high-demand skill set that will command a very healthy compensation package wherever he may go. I hope that is the case, but I was disappointed in his comment as he seemed to be bitter at the fact that public service entails sacrifice and a dedication to duty. If he was not willing to make these sacrifices, why serve?

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Volatile Mix of Best Value and Politics

After weeks of what seemed like political blackmail, Alabama Republicans Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions, who have been "holding" his nomination, have finally dropped their objections after seeking assurances that Carter will not change the specifications for the KC-X tanker refueling tanker contract being sought by Northrop Grumman Corp., which would build the plane in Mobile, Ala.

This has been a troubling trend towards larger acquisition programs, as best value has gone out the window in favor of strong Congressional and Lobbying delegations exerting undue influence on the contracting process, largely in part because of economic and political pressures associated with jobs in Congressional districts. By all accounts, Boeing was unfairly evaluated according to the GAO decision on the protest, but I believe politics vice best value were to blame for the misguided attempt to award the contract to Northrop Grumman as Boeing should have won the award based on merit, and thus a best value decision.

Out of fear of protests and further delays in the program, a growing chorus of lawmakers in Congress, led by Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), the chairman of the House Appropriations Defense panel, have been lobbying Defense Secretary Robert Gates on the proposal. I have already commented on why this is a bad idea, but luckily this proposal will hopefully go nowhere as Sec. Gates has been opposed to splitting the contract.

Another large acquisition program that has received undue political influence has been the troubled VH-71 Presidential helicopter program. This program, like the KC-X tanker program, have kept the GAO busy as both these programs continued to be singled out for cost overruns, schedule delays, and targets for cancellation because of poor performance and management. However, the VH-71 program got to the point where it cost more than Air Force One, and was thus immediately a target by Congressman as either a bad decision where jobs were lost, or a good decision where jobs may be kept or expanded after Sec. Gates recommended the program be terminated:

News release from Senator Joe Lieberman (ID-CT):

"I support Secretary Gates' effort to reform the Defense Department's modernization programs." Lieberman said. "I am glad he agrees that many of our most essential defense systems are built in Connecticut. The Secretary's decision to cancel the VH-71 Presidential Replacement Helicopter is a wise one. It will create an opportunity for America's Presidents to continue to be flown in Sikorsky helicopters, the most reliable aircraft in the world. I am also glad that Secretary Gates has reaffirmed the importance of building a next generation strategic submarine force to replace our aging Ohio-class submarines and will continue to support the ongoing production of Virginia-class submarines. These boats are essential to the national security, and will continue to be so for many years to come." (Emphasis mine).

News release from Congressman Maurice Hinchey (D-NY):

"I am extremely troubled by Secretary Gates' recommendation to President Obama that the VH-71 presidential helicopter program be canceled. I firmly believe Secretary Gates' recommendation is misguided and ignores the fact that the safety and security of the president requires the replacement of the current fleet of presidential helicopters, which were designed in the 1950's and built in the 1970's. While attempting to save taxpayer money, the recommendation also ignores the fact that $3 billion has already been spent on the project. Further, at a time when the government is working aggressively to create jobs, the cancellation of this project would jeopardize hundreds of jobs in upstate New York and thousands across the country.”…

… "The people of the Southern Tier are invested in the completion of this helicopter program at Lockheed Martin in Owego. We cannot simply cede to political talking points from Senator McCain and others and walk away from a program that is so critical to the safety of the president and that also has a significant economic impact.” (Emphasis mine)

I find it hard to imagine that not once in the statements were any comment of best value or what makes sense for the taxpayers and the American people. In fact it is quite the opposite, where Rep. Hinchey goes so far as to say that sunk costs are too high to stop now, and that we need to pour more money down the drain to save jobs for his constituents and Lockheed Martin. The bottom line is that Congress is continuing to harp on the fact that the acquisition system is broken, and in need of repair. Yet these same politicians are either taking a hammer to fix the system, or holding a political gun to the head of appointees until they get reassurances that their constituents, which include the powerful lobbyists of defense contractors, can be assured that they will not be “improperly” evaluated or treated poorly.

I would stress to members in Congress that these are difficult times, and that our current path of spending on defense is unsustainable. I certainly do not want people to lose their jobs, but tough decisions need to be made that affect all of us as a nation, and these bloated programs that make no sense for the future defense of our nation need a hard look to ensure that taxpayers get best value for their investments, and that the warfighters get the weapons and technology to meet the needs of today and tomorrow, not yesterday. This is not about politics, but unfortunately the system has been hijacked in that direction. Congress works for us, and they need to be held accountable for decisions that are not in the best interest of our country and that are self-serving for their relatively small group of constituents.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Road to Transforming the Acquisition Workforce

As details emerge on efforts by the DoD to bolster its acquisition workforce by upwards of 20,000 personnel by 2015, one thing is becoming apparently clear; this will be one of the hardest initiatives faced by DoD in some time.

Capability gaps and manpower shortages have been created and exacerbated at DoD by spending on goods and services that has doubled between 2001 and 2008, with no accompanying increases in acquisition personnel. The result has been a strategy to supplement the in-house acquisition workforce with contractor support. Now the pendulum is swinging in the other direction, with the announcement of Secretary Gates that the acquisition workforce needs critical reform to complete its mission. As hiring goals and targets are set, what seems to be lacking is the overall strategy on how these goals will be met. There are no easy answers, and the DoD will need to completely reform its human capital management culture if these goals are to be achieved on time.

Prior to making the sweeping announcement, a disturbing report by the GAO indicated that DoD knows little about the makeup of its acquisition workforce, and is further hampered with even less information about contractors supporting the acquisition mission and why they are used.

DOD lacks critical department-wide information to ensure its acquisition workforce is sufficient to meet its national security mission. First, in its acquisition workforce assessments, DOD does not collect or track information on contractor personnel, despite their being a key segment of the total acquisition workforce. DOD also lacks information on why contractor personnel are used, which limits its ability to determine whether decisions to use contractors to augment the in-house acquisition workforce are appropriate.

It is in this culture and broken system that gaps in skills and capabilities will need to be identified. Further, it is this culture that will need to be the focal point of any serious attempts at swinging the pendulum back from what many view as an over reliance on contractors. Nonetheless, the current reality is that hundreds of vacant acquisition positions remain unfilled throughout the DoD and the federal government, with further problems coming from longer hiring lead times and smaller compensation packages than the private sector.

Defense will need to radically create a next-generation workforce development initiative to attract top caliber acquisition professionals by becoming more competitive in terms of salaries, benefits and professional development. Further, institutional hiring decision need to change to allow DoD, and the federal government, the ability to cast a wider net to obtain talent. The government needs to modify requirements to allow its hiring managers to expand opportunities to those with contractor experience, taking fair account of work experience, education, and accounting for comparable experience and bridging any perceived gaps with the government's training requirements. I would think that turning a contractor position to a government position for many of these transitional strategies outlined by DoD would begin with examining ways to turn the contractor into a fed. Also, broadening direct hire authority would allow talented individuals the opportunity to join the federal acquisition workforce in weeks, instead of the current 6-8 month time frame.

Reform has to be a holistic enterprise, or the government should have thousands of letters at the ready that begin with:

"You were not referred because your resume does not reflect the specialized experience requirements as defined in the Office of Personnel Management's Qualification Standards Handbook...."

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Definition of Transparency

Continuing our focus on transparency, I now turn to some interesting research done by Nextgov. They, along with their sister research organization the Government Business Council, created a survey of 430 federal managers between Feb. 25 and March 2 on the definition of transparency and their ability to execute on that definition. The results of the survey can be found here.

The impetus for the need for transparency comes directly from President Obama himself, who stated very clearly his intentions to make government more transparent in his memo released Jan. 21, one day into his presidency.

"Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their government is doing," he wrote. "My administration will take appropriate action, consistent with law and policy, to disclose information rapidly in forms that the public can readily find and use."

The focus on transparency also was profiled by Government Executive magazine in its April cover story, "Behind the Curtain." This story focused on the definition of transparency, the types of information that can be released, and the format for that information. Both Nextgov and Government Executive found that federal managers were most concerned about what constitutes transparency. Further, the results create a mixed message of that definition, along with a clear picture of obstacles the transparency initiative will have in the federal government.

Most respondents believed they are being overburdened with data calls for information that has already been made available to the public. Computer security was also a major concern, as technology will drive the visibility of the transparency initiative. However, the reality is that federal agencies simply do not have the resources to make all the applicable data accessible, even though positive survey results indicate federal managers seemed to be open to transparency. This is an encouraging sign from a group normally risk averse and typically resistant to change. Nonetheless, the real impediment that transparency will have is the view of who has the onus of transparency. According to federal managers, it is not their problem.

… They said the president, Congress and top government executives needed to drive it. But that's only half the equation, Miller said. "My take on this is it's going to take strong leadership not only at the top of an agency but also at the lower levels," she said. "What does it mean for the agency to be transparent and what does that look like?"…

…Alan Blautis, director of Cisco Systems Inc.'s Internet Business Solutions Group who has held numerous government management positions in his 28 year government career, summed up managers' lack of interest in taking the responsibility for transparency this way: "There's a strong status quo mentality" among federal managers, he said. "So, here's the question: Who outside of the White House or the stimulus groupies, have you heard talk about transparency?"… (Emphasis mine).

That is the unspoken truth; a deafening silence from Congress and senior government leaders on the value of transparency. President Obama can only provide so much push for the initiative, as leaders need to execute on the initiative and rally the troops to open government. It is a very challenging and difficult environment that needs leadership outside the White House to convince agencies on how and why transparency is of value to government operations and helping strengthen confidence in government.