Friday, May 8, 2009

Acquiring Technology with the Wrong Process

In regards to acquisition reform, the overarching principle should be to streamline processes, eliminate waste, and create a balanced approach to long-term solutions through careful analysis. Although the jury is still out in my mind if that is happening over all the rhetoric being spouted by Congress, one bright spot in this process was the March 2009 Defense Science Board Task Force report Policies and Procedures for the Acquisition of Information Technology.

The primary conclusion of the task force is that the conventional DoD acquisition process is too long and too cumbersome to effectively or timely acquire and maintain current technology. Further, the current acquisition process is modeled after weapon systems. Even the current and updated DoD 5000 process is still not the answer for IT. This is the equivalent of the continuous focus by DoD to sink billions into weapons systems to fight the wars of yesterday when the battlefield and needs of asymmetrical warfare and the wars of tomorrow go largely unmet.

IT systems require continuous changes and upgrades, and are evolving faster than the DoD can acquire them (e.g. Moore’s Law). Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn recently spoke about the challenges of acquiring technology, with a focus on what IT should be purchased and the paradigm shift that needs to occur if the Defense Science Board recommendations are to be effective, if and when they are implemented:

…"We have a tendency to reach for the exotic technology that looks like [it allows for] the highest performance," Lynn said. "It's appealing on a PowerPoint slide, but unfortunately, we need the engineering and technological maturity to make it happen and we don't always have that."

A related challenge is ensuring that contracts don't call for technology that doesn't exist. While a requirement may be "good to have," acquiring the technology or engineering capacity to meet it could cost more or take longer than it is worth, he said.

Lynn named these technology-related issues as the leading cause of schedule delays and cost overruns, but said the key to reforming the department's acquisition processes is people. The budget Defense plans to submit on Thursday will propose a 20,000 person increase in the acquisition workforce between fiscal 2010 and 2015, he said.

Acquiring mature technology needs to be a focus area in the discipline approach brought to DoD by new Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology & Logistics Ashton Carter. These mature technologies will include COTS, such that initial faults, inherent problems, and risks have been largely removed or reduced. Some of the principle cost drivers of weapons systems have been the immature technologies that are coveted at DoD, and have so far underperformed or cannot be delivered because the technology simply does not exist or cannot be fully developed.

With this change in focus on acquiring the right technology, the task force recommendations on how to obtain that technology can go a long way to ensure long term reform of the defense acquisition process, and ensure a streamlined process exists for the acquisition of IT.

The task force offered the following recommendations to change the defense acquisition process in regards to IT acquisition:

1) A new acquisition process for information technology should be developed—modeled on successful commercial practices, for the rapid acquisition and continuous upgrade and improvement of IT capabilities. The process should be agile and geared to delivering meaningful increments of capability in approximately 18 months or less—increments that are prioritized based on need and technical readiness.

2) Expanded roles and responsibilities of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Networks an Information Integration/DOD Chief Information Officer (ASD (NII)/DOD CIO). The ASD (NII)/DOD CIO should have strong authorities and responsibilities for enterprise-wide information policy, enterprise architecture issues, and system engineering.

3) Consolidation of all acquisition oversight of information technology under the USD (AT&L) by moving into that organization, those elements of the ASD (NII)/DOD CIO and Business Transformation Agency organizations responsible for IT acquisition oversight.

4) Ensure the government managers responsible for program execution have the proper acquisition expertise for a successful enterprise IT system acquisition. The right skills sets must include a track record of success, and these leaders must have relevant business experience in the appropriate areas of acquisition, product development, and management.

IT systems are critical to both national security and effective government management. Therefore, the recommendations made by the Defense Science Board, along with the execution of the focused acquisition discipline promised by Mr. Hunter, will go a long way to ensure the DoD can keep pace with the speed of change and the new capabilities being introduced in today’s information age to keep DoD ahead of our adversaries and the world’s leader in technology.

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