Defense Acquisition Reform Panel Suggests Reevaluating Department CIO

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The Section 809 Panel’s third report recommends big changes to how the Defense Department buys technology.

The latest report from a commission charged with reviewing the Defense Department’s acquisition problems includes two significant recommendations regarding how the department buys IT: adopt a more commercial as-a-service purchasing model and reevaluate the role of the chief information officer.

The Section 809 Panel—a group convened under the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act to review the Defense Department’s acquisition issues—Tuesday released the third and final volume of its report. While the report covers a broad range of acquisition topics, procurement of IT systems and services received its own section, including a recommendation to exempt the department from the Clinger-Cohen Act.

The Clinger-Cohen Act, passed in 1996, established a requirement for all large agencies covered under the CFO Act to appoint a chief information officer to manage IT across each department. According to the Section 809 Panel, the position—as well as other bureaucratic stipulations in the law—has become an unnecessary roadblock for acquisition at the Defense Department.

“Clinger-Cohen was really meant to address the needs of civilian agencies who are really moving into [the technology] space, and moving into that space specifically with complex, long-cycle IT projects,” said Commissioner Elliot Branch, who currently serves as deputy assistant secretary for acquisition and procurement under the secretary for the Navy for research, development and acquisition. Branch noted the Defense Department has layers of bureaucracy in place that cover all of what a traditional CIO would handle.

“This is what I saw: The requirements for IT systems came from the requirements community … the funding came from the chief of naval operations … the acquisition strategy—the business strategy to deliver capability—came from the acquisition community,” he said, citing almost 25 years of watching this develop within the department. “What is the role of the CIO? That role, my observation would be, in DOD has been driven as much by personality as anything. It vacillates from trying to wrest control from the requirements and acquisition process—which is a losing battle because it has its own statutory responsibilities—to being a setter of standards, which is probably better done by the private sector.”

The CIO role “really does not add value,” he added.

“I have a fundamental rule of all procurement: No amount of management, however diligent will ever overcome a failed statement of requirement,” Branch told Nextgov after the event. “The thing that makes IT different is that the trajectory from a technology standpoint moves so quickly that that can sometimes be hard. In order for any solution to work in any business, all the factors that contribute to delivering that capability to the customer have to be in sync. In IT, in government, they’re not.”

The change in consumption model—from a single point of purchase to an ongoing procurement over the life of the technology—reflects the difference between buying IT and other products and services, Branch said.

“I’ll use the example of Microsoft Office,” he offered. In the early days, you could buy a CD with the office suite, install it on a machine and run that instance until the machine gave out.

“That’s not true today,” Branch said. “The Microsoft Office 365 you ran last night before you went to bed is not the same Microsoft Office 365 that you’ll run when you get home tonight. It’s been updated—the content, the delivery mechanism—all controlled by the vendor.”

Resolving these issues is critical to back-office functions within the Defense Department, as well as to the warfighters on the frontlines, Branch said, a sentiment that was shared by the entire panel.

“We’re at war,” said Chairman David Drabkin, former director of acquisition policy with the Defense Department. Both Drabkin and the report reiterated several times that, for the department to stay competitive, it must approach acquisition as though the country is at war.

“We won’t declare it but there is a cyberwar going on,” Drabkin said. “And the Chinese and the Russians, they’re beating us. And they’re buying stuff we don’t even know about—and some of that stuff we invented. And what they’re not buying, they’re stealing.”

While Volume 3 marks the end of the panel’s investigatory work, there is one more report left to come. By Feb. 15, the panel will issue its final report, Volume X, which will weave together all of the panel’s work into a single report.

Editor's Note: This article and headline have been updated to more accurately reflect the panel's recommendations.