The following remarks were delivered by Pat Tracey, Vice President, Homeland Security and Defense, Hewlett Packard Enterprise at a November 13 Lexington Institute event on Capitol Hill.
I will not pretend to be a student of acquisition and acquisition reform as many of my fellow speakers and members of the audience are. I draw from three perspectives when I think about reforms needed in the acquisition system: First, I was once asked to lead a review of the sufficiency of acquisition authorities in connection with the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review; Second, success in my current role in industry depends on leading teams who are navigating the acquisition system—both to earn the opportunity to deliver service and to execute successfully on actual versus competed delivery demands; and third, I was Director of the Navy Staff as the Department of the Navy undertook one of the largest transformation programs with the Navy Marine Corps Intranet contract. In that seat, I had a firsthand view of how much leadership – the skill and the people in leadership roles – matters to the success of complex programs, especially in domains where rapid and disruptive change is likely to occur during the period of performance.
There is no doubt that successful acquisition outcomes are more important today than at any other time in our lives. Threats and potential adversaries are proliferating, technology disruptions are accelerating – both advantaging and confusing us – and lowering barriers to entry for sophisticated capabilities once thought to be the province of a few nation states. Budgets leave little room to sustain overlapping capabilities, nth order effects of decisions become evident faster and they matter. The environment calls for emphasis on speed, flexibility, and predictability in acquiring new capabilities – attributes that conflict with each other. As we contemplate reforming acquisition, it is not clear that the most important changes can come from legislation.
Are we confident that both government and industry understand the full set of authorities and exceptions in the FAR and the scenarios where they are best applied? Is there a shared understanding among acquisition professionals, contracting officers, government requirements writers, and program managers so they can work together to achieve the end users’ objective? Are we encouraging Industry to invest in understanding what flexibilities matter and what authorities their customers have to exercise them? More than the basic knowledge, exercising other than routine authorities takes courage and it takes engaged top cover from leadership as practitioners navigate approval processes for approaches that depart from the norm. Industry as well needs to re-evaluate its risk equation in order to be ready to do business with government in an era of pervasive uncertainty. The system today is characterized by chronic defensiveness on all sides and at every level. Are leaders visibly engaged around more than acquisition decision memoranda and source selection to support innovation and cross-discipline collaboration so practitioners can build confidence in navigating unfamiliar territory? Are oversight processes engineered to encourage creativity or are practitioners motivated to take any steps necessary to avoid triggering a threshold that requires higher level approval? Courage and cross-discipline engagement by leaders are more important here than regulatory or legislative change.
It is exciting to see some of the innovative approaches to information technology services acquisition being undertaken by a few contracting shops today. What can we do to ensure that all applicable government parties and interested industry participants are developing common understandings of what success looks like in these new approaches? What can we learn from the on-going proactive, collaborative oversight aimed at accelerating progress that characterizes these engagements?
My experience is that both government and industry could benefit from examining their respective processes here.
Second, acquiring the next offset capability is a different task from acquiring a multi-year services agreement. A multi-year agreement for lawn and facility maintenance is different from an agreement to provide IT services at enterprise scale. An acquisition that will depend on or generate organizational and behavioral change is different from a procurement of commodity services. Is it time to think about expanding emphasis on individuals and review processes that specialize in understanding the different success factors and execution characteristics of these engagements? In a time when end users’ needs are likely to change quickly, would it be helpful if every key member of the team has the opportunity to understand the work being delivered and how it is affected by external changes, not just the cost, schedule, performance metrics of the contract? Would it be beneficial to encourage exchanges among experts in government contracting from industry and government?
Third, there has been widespread acknowledgement of the benefits of more rather than less dialogue around specific procurements. Should the government use down-select more frequently and sharpen the dialogue with the bidders whose proposals suggest closest alignment to government objectives? Is Industry ready to accept that communications and dialogue will not be equal? Would it be helpful for leaders to review the approval processes around government personnel participating in Industry events showcasing current and future trends in technology development? Is the policy interpretation consistent with government’s need to influence the technology directions of a wider set of industries?
Taxpayers deserve an acquisition system that with high probability puts right capability into the hands of men and women executing missions on their behalf at the right time and in the right quantity to enable success in the face of uncertain future demands. They deserve that such a system pays only what assurance of that capability should cost. Law and regulation alone can never guarantee such a system. It takes implementation that rewards knowledge, courage and collaboration, and it takes leaders who eliminate barriers every day.
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