Speaking from Experience: Ken Miller’s Column

Ken MillerI have had a broad experience base in Acquisition:  from working as a junior engineer on a few Programs to Deputy PEO for Naval TACAIR Aviation, on to a series of positions in the departments of the navy and the air force in the Acquisition, Strategy/programming and Requirements/Policy sectors.

A key problem to a person who has been a career acquisition professional is simply the future of the acquisition work force and the challenges facing the Administration as they seek to re-set that work force. When I look at the future, I have to go back to the past.  It was during the Clinton Administration that a new strategy was embarked on.  This strategy was based on two key efforts:

  • Reduce acquisition workforce by 20,000 people (they did it in cost estimation, contracting and contract administration and oversight).  The rationale was that it would allow the private sector to shape a new approach, Lead System Integrators or LSI, which in turn would require less government oversight, which then drove by default the reduction in system engineering manpower.
  • They also did a CSS (Contractor Service Support) Conversion Program by transferring a large number of government jobs to contract Support Services. This strategy was designed to help speed the downsizing of the government workforce.

The outcome of all this for the past 17 years has become a weaker and less experienced acquisition workforce.  This has been exacerbated by the ongoing wars and increased procurement demands; so the system is now severely over stressed (in other words more contracts and fewer overseers). Indeed, one could argue that the long running war efforts broke the reform effort generated by the Clinton Administration.

The Obama Administration and the Congress see the need to revamp the acquisition manpower system and approach.  They plan to do this revamping via new acquisition reform policies (such as the McCain/Levin acquisition reform bill) and the Administration’s plan to hire 20,000 new employees.
Speaking to the House Armed Services Committee, Deputy Secretary of Defense Bill Lynn cited a “lack of critical skills” as a major consideration, while DoD reforms its process for purchasing weapons and defense systems.
The Defense Department budget  includes funding to increase acquisition personnel by 20,000 positions over the fiscal years 2010 to 2015.  The breakdown includes roughly 9,000 jobs at the Defense Contract Audit Agency and the Defense Contract Management Agency, the Pentagon components responsible for estimating contracting costs and contract oversight.  The remaining 11,000 new hires will be created when roles currently carried out by contractors — jobs in systems engineering, program and business management, and logistics — are converted to federal positions (this is basically the re-conversion of the CSS jobs I mentioned earlier).

The overall objective is for the Defense Department to increase the number of federal civilian employees conducting acquisition-related jobs by 20,000, while reducing its contractor work force by about 10,000. This will expand the acquisition work force from its current 127,000 federal employees and 52,000 contractors to 147,000 feds and about 42,000 contractors by fiscal 2015. The first 4,100 of the new federal employees are expected to be hired through a competitive selection process during fiscal 2010.
“One of the critical reasons for some of our shortcomings in the acquisition process is the lack of critical skills in the acquisition work force,” Lynn said. “Over the last 10 years, defense contract obligations have nearly tripled, while our acquisition work force has fallen by more than 10 percent.
“In the absence of these personnel, we have outsourced too many functions that should be performed inside the department,” he added.

Bill Lynn acknowledged the challenge in attempting to enhance a system as complex as defense purchasing, noting that nearly 130 studies of acquisition reform have been completed since World War II.  “Many very smart people have tried and have met with only limited success,” he said. “In this regard, we need to keep in mind the importance of not making the system worse in our efforts to achieve reform.”
Describing other areas in need of improvement, Lynn stressed a need for clearer, more realistic contract requirements and cost estimates, and the importance of shortening the development cycle.
So Bill Lynn’s last comment leads to the central theme of the new acquisition reform language that Congress in partnership with the new administration has focused upon.

Among the key themes coming out of the new language and new budget are:

  • Consistently demonstrating the commitment and leadership to cancel programs that significantly exceed their budget or which spend limited tax dollars to buy more capability  than the nation needs (i.e. new procedures on the Nunn-McCurdy process).
  • Tying goals to the actual and prospective capabilities of known future adversaries, not buying what might be technologically feasible for a potential adversary given unlimited time and resources.
  • Ensuring that requirements are reasonable and technology is adequately mature to allow the Department to execute successfully the programs.
  • Realistically estimating program costs and providing budget stability for the programs DoD initiates.
  • Adequately staffing the government acquisition team and providing disciplined and constant oversight.

The challenge will effectively be to align new programs, manage the Iraq withdrawal and the Afghanistan reset with the current force while hiring new folks.  That is when the core problem of the aging of the work force comes into play:  25,000 personnel are eligible for retirement in the next five years and 25,000 immediately after that.  If my math works, that means that in five years you might have 30,000 less oversight personnel than now. So the challenge might more adequately be seen as re-setting the relationship with industry to get better outcomes than the government desires, rather than really supplanting the private sector with new government personnel.  Even more compelling, the proof will be in the pudding.  Words and new regulations are plentiful; demonstrating through new buys that the government is a more effective buyer will be the real test.

But no doubt the core challenge will be replacing my generation of acquisition officials with a new one.  The challenge will be to hire, train, and to let experience set in.  And most significantly, these new officials will need to be allowed to buy equipment in a timely manner.  Oversight without delivery of capability to the warfighter is a guarantee for futility, not reform.  And surely we need a new generation trained to procure and deliver capability with industry for the current wars and the operations to come.

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***Posted November 3rd, 2009

"If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking."

—General George Patton Jr.

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