The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) held a hearing this week titled “Twenty Five Years of Acquisition Reform: Where Do We Go from Here?” If the past is prologue, the answer to the Committee’s question would have to be nowhere. The reason for this is that the system is fundamentally broken. Reform at the margins will do little or nothing to solve the problem.
There have been more than 100 studies over the years on how to reform the way the Department of Defense does business. There have been countless acquisition reform initiatives, the majority of which simply cycle back and forth between greater and lesser degrees of government oversight and management of acquisition decisions. If even a tenth of the savings promised from all these reform efforts had been realized, we could maintain today’s military for free.
Right now, the pendulum has swung pretty far in the direction of a heavy government hand on the acquisition process. However, as recent reports by the Government Accountability Office, Congressional Budget Office and private institutions have clearly demonstrated, the results have not matched expectations with respect to reduced costs, shorter procurement timelines or better products. If anything, this approach has increased costs department-wide, increased the entrenched position of companies familiar with the government’s arcane contracting and accounting systems and reduced incentives for new entrants in the defense marketplace.
Historically, many reform ideas have actually made the system worse. There were ill-fated attempts to import enterprise management systems designed for the commercial world into defense acquisition. Program milestones have been added, subtracted and changed willy-nilly which has only added to the confusion, delay and cost of major weapons systems.
Then there are the repeated efforts to deal with the dysfunctional behaviors of the acquisition corps. Virtually all the witnesses called to testify at the HASC hearing stressed the need for a better trained, more professional acquisition corps. This is about as useful as if the White Star Line had required every member of the Titanic’s crew be certified in water safety. Actually, it is worse; it is more like the captain of the Titanic ordering the crew to undergo water safety training after the ship hit the iceberg. Even if there were a common understanding of the characteristics desired in a highly-trained acquisition workforce — and there isn’t — there is not sufficient time to recruit, train and promote this corps of Myrmidons. Moreover, good people working in a dysfunctional system will produce what? That’s right, dysfunctional outcomes.
Reform efforts come and go but the number of laws, regulations, reports and inspections continues to mount. Calls to weed the 2,000 pages of federal acquisition regulations to eliminate outmoded, irrelevant and costly regulations is a Herculean labor likely to produce only limited benefits. As one senior member of the Defense Business Board recently observed, the best solution might be to set a match to the whole paper edifice and start over.
Short of lighting a bonfire, the best solution would be sidestepping the current system. I would propose expanding the use of commercial best practices and the acquisition of commercial items. This would mean not requiring commercial vendors to use the DoD accounting practices and procedures or to demand cost, pricing and technical information from commercial providers. The military would have to be satisfied with solutions that didn’t meet their every fantasy requirement. Congress would need to stop passing laws that demand greater government scrutiny, oversight and even control over the acquisition process and the private sector.