The dark side of DOD's acquisition reform bid

Many government officials and experts have said there could be a silver lining to the dark cloud hovering over the Defense Department budget: The belt-tightening might yield improved efficiencies and a leaner, more agile organization. But will shrinking coffers and the launch of a number of high-profile, far-reaching efforts make it impossible to right the ship in mid-storm without incurring damage?

DOD is grappling with constrained budgets and the shifting requirements of an evolving warfront, which would be challenging in the best of circumstances. But the department is also taking on major acquisition reform and wholesale IT integration as part of wider efficiency efforts.

“We’re looking at the possibility of collateral damage,” said Deniece Peterson, senior manager of federal industry analysis at Deltek’s Input business unit. "IT hasn’t been called out as a specific target yet, but as DOD is looking to create efficiencies, IT could be impacted." Her organization recently released a report, “Department of Defense IT and Acquisition Landscape,” examining what’s at stake in DOD’s tug-of-war between efficiencies and spending.

DOD officials argue that they have no choice but to pursue the multiple efforts in order to meet troops' needs while maximizing precious, dwindling funds and keeping DOD running.

“These reform efforts — if followed through to completion — will make it possible to protect the U.S. military’s size, reach and fighting strength despite a declining rate of growth — and eventual flattening — of the defense budget over the next five years,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in January as he discussed his overall strategy for making DOD more efficient.

Nevertheless, many experts say that although the drastic measures might be necessary in the face of staggering national debt and record defense spending, taking on multiple enterprisewide efforts of potentially unprecedented scale is risky.

“The convergence of these factors could serve to either facilitate or hinder progress, depending on the scope, pace and nature of future process, technology and cultural changes,” Input's report states. “Several factors could tip the scales and upset DOD’s progress toward transformation.”

In search of balance

Achieving transformation will hinge on the right balance of a number of factors, Peterson said. They include the ability to break major change into manageable pieces and the speed at which acquisition reform is handed down and enforced.

Peterson emphasized that DOD officials must aggressively enforce new acquisition guidelines. She pointed out that the government has pursued acquisition reform off and on for decades with little to show for it. In part, the problem might be that such efforts often take a piecemeal approach rather than making significant changes.

Still, it’s not all bad news. Trey Hodgkins, vice president of national security and procurement policy at TechAmerica, said ongoing efficiency efforts could benefit troops on the ground, especially when it comes to IT and acquisition reform.

That’s because reform efforts typically involve delivering technology in smaller, more frequent increments. “So driving those efficiencies and finding ways to get those technologies deployed more rapidly and in a cost-efficient manner all contribute to supporting [the] warfighter — the two overlap and complement each other,” Hodgkins said.

Besides aiding DOD's mission, acquisition reform could also benefit taxpayers because an incremental approach to buying can help get more bang for the buck.

“The agile nature of identifying what we want to buy and buying in smaller pieces allows us to procure more effectively,” Hodgkins said. "We don’t have to buy the whole thing before deploying."

Like Peterson, Hodgkins said he believes that to start reaping the benefits of IT and acquisition reform, the government must get serious about implementing change and catching up to the speed of technology. And Congress must do its part by improving the funding process. One option is to provide defense agencies with revolving fund accounts, which offer more flexibility than the multiyear acquisition cycle, he added.

“We have an 18th- and 19th-century budgetary process in a 21st-century Information Age,” Hodgkins said. "We have to change processes or we’ll never get to the point where we’re maximizing taxpayer dollars."

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