In an era of major power competition, the Department of Defense (DoD) relies on industry and the private sector to provide technological overmatch. To efficiently and effectively acquire and integrate disruptive technology into the Services, we must review our processes to ensure overmatch.
Our processes to equip and sustain our forces are not agile enough to meet the challenges of today’s rapidly changing world. Given that the U.S. is competing with near-peer adversaries, it is essential the DoD modernize its materiel development processes as part of its acquisition program and control the variables it can control.
The partnership between the U.S. Army Futures Command’s Army Research Laboratory and the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology is a model for how we can win the future. Together, with small business leader Valid Eval, the team is using innovative and state-of-the-art down-selection workflows to bring needed trust, efficiency, and improved mission performance to the materiel developments process.
There are many opportunities to enhance trust in our acquisition processes. We believe down-selection should be designed around principles of transparency and accountability.
A demonstrably fair process improves trust with industry, reduces protests, and sets conditions that encourage small innovative companies to bring their innovative solutions to market with the government. A process with verifiable documentation, justification, and accountability at every step builds confidence among senior leaders. Beyond these important benefits, enhancing trust with industry is perhaps the most important step forward DoD can make in pursuit of critical dual-use technologies.
As pressure to transition innovations quickly mounts, efficiency is key for acquisition programs. Efficiency means that proposal evaluations themselves happen more quickly, consensus-building meetings are shorter, and the training requirements for reviewers are eliminated. It means meetings to double- and triple-check down selection steps are eliminated. These gains cannot be at the expense of consistency. We must adopt systems that enhance consistency while improving efficiency across different human evaluators and from program to program is the key to moving faster with confidence.
Acquisition ensures our warfighters are the best equipped in the world. Today, too few acquisition process steps are measured to improve the processes themselves. Too often we fail to accurately codify “commander’s intent” at the beginning of a program to communicate program goals accurately to all of our stakeholders. Better measurement of everything from the relative strengths and weaknesses of proposals to the biases exhibited by evaluators can and should be measured with an eye on continuous improvement for our acquisition pipeline.
U.S. government acquisition programs are taking advantage of a better approach. This week Colorado-based Valid Eval announced its latest contract with the Army’s ASA (ALT) and Army Research Lab to help manage the Army’s Applied SBIR and prize competition programs.
Valid Eval’s secure software-as-a-service platform uses best practices in assessment of “complex performances” from the Learning Sciences. At the core of this approach are rubrics. A rubric is a matrix used for assessment where the rows are the factors a program wants to measure, and the cells define four levels of performance for a given row. Our DoD engagements start by codifying commander’s intent in a rubric so that assessments can be widely distributed across the force to include war fighters, subject-matter-experts and contracting professionals.
None of this high-minded rigor would amount to much if it wasn’t easy to use. Remarkably, Valid Eval’s system requires zero training for evaluators. It’s intuitive, fast and fun.
Acquisition professionals have never been more important to our national security and their jobs have never been more challenging. It is time to look hard at our basic processes and ask how we can realize improvement in trustworthiness, efficiency, and mission performance. It is worth asking ourselves how we, as a defense innovation community, can do better.
About the Authors:
Maj. General John F. Wharton has served the Nation for more than three decades and has extensive experience in leadership, technology, acquisition and logistics. He is currently a public and private sector advisor to numerous technology companies, industries, universities and nations. His focus is on national security and technology acceleration in support of national priorities and homeland security.
Adam S. Rentschler is the CEO and Co-founder of Valid Evaluation, a ten-year-old company that started in the private sector, where it successfully brought rigor to assessing early-stage startup companies. Since 2018, he’s led Valid Eval in various efforts to help the government modernize its acquisition practices.
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