Acquisition in the crosshairs amid DOD restructuring

Frank Kendall, the Pentagon undersecretary in charge of acquisition, outlined some tentative plans to streamline acquisition rules, ideally before the fiscal 2015 defense funding bill.

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The Defense Department is facing significant challenges and changes in the coming months and years, and with a mandate to streamline and cut spending, acquisition is emerging as a critical area.

DOD officials expect to see big changes in acquisition, whether they involve reforming how the military buys its weapons, IT, services and other goods; improving the workforce in charge of purchasing; or handing off certain responsibilities.

"Our intent is to ensure that people approach the problem of how to do a specific acquisition with an open mind and try to do the best approach for that particular product," said Frank Kendall, undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics. "It struck me how incredibly complicated it was, how difficult it was for program managers to just make their way through that maze."

During a conference hosted by Credit Suisse and organized by McAleese and Associates on Feb. 25, Kendall outlined some tentative plans to streamline acquisition rules, ideally before the fiscal 2015 defense funding bill. At least some of the work is being carried out in conjunction with Capitol Hill lawmakers, including Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas).

"I don't know that it'll catch [the fiscal 2015 defense authorization act], except for maybe low-hanging fruit, simply because of the processes in going through the legislative and approval processes," Kendall said. "But we'll try to get low-hanging fruit."

One example: Any business system that costs more than $1 million across the five-year defense spending plan has to be certified by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Kendall said.

"That's insane," he said. "It turns it into a rubber stamp. There are thousands of these things." He added that reforms to the Defense Acquisition Regulations System, a more complicated effort, can also be expected in the near term.

"What happens is that people keep adding statutory requirements year over year over year, all trying to improve things," he said. "But what happens is that you start with something very clean -- [the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act], for example, is a good act that has a lot of really good things in it -- but people keep adding and adding, and it just makes the burden on program managers huge. So the idea is to simplify so that we have a coherent body of law."

Lt. Gen. Charles Davis, military deputy in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, said IT acquisition is an especially complex area that needs particular attention.

"I've got programs that deal with buying additional servers from [the Defense Information Systems Agency]," Davis said. "I've got programs that are trying to revolutionize personnel and pay and accounting systems. We have programs out there that are trying to protect the Air Force network from cyber threats. So IT can go a long way, and each one is a little bit of a different issue...and each one of those areas requires specific acquisition techniques. You just can't lump them together as IT."

In some cases, such as business IT systems and DOD's much-maligned enterprise resource planning programs, it might be better to hand off whatever is not within the department's areas of core competencies, Davis added.

"I have long said that I don't think that DOD collectively should be in business information systems," he said. "I don't think that we should be doing business enterprise systems. I don't think we grow the talent or workforce to do that."