Procurement troubles still dog Defense Department

June 30

Congress has held hearings over the past 30 years seeking ways to fix the Defense Department’s poor procurement system.

Last Tuesday’s hearing offered interesting ideas.

No headlines afterward about stopping F-35 costs from skyrocketing, keeping new production of nuclear aircraft carriers on schedule or halting the failure of billion-dollar computer programs — in fact, there was hardly any press coverage at all.

Two worthwhile ideas that came from the four experienced procurement specialists who appeared before the House Armed Services Committee provided no silver bullets, but they made sense.

●Give the main contracting officer for major weapons projects “absolute cradle-to-grave authority and responsibility and accountability.” That was a recommendation from Ronald O’Rourke, the naval analyst at the Congressional Research Service.

It’s a good idea but not new.

Two years ago, the Defense Business Board recommended incentives “that attract, not disadvantage officers and NCOs [noncommissioned officers] who serve in acquisition” and award credit for such officers so it “does not impact their career timelines.”

Why keep them in programs that often take a decade or more?

Officials “with long terms of office understand they will still be in office years from now, and consequently that they will be held personally accountable for the results of decisions they make — at least those they make during their earlier years in office,” O’Rourke said.

Short-termers, which most contract officers are, “might even feel an incentive to make decisions that achieve what they view as near-term success for a program” even if “those decisions increase the program’s risk . . . later,” O’Rourke added.

Beth McGrath, former Defense Department deputy chief management officer with a focus on computer systems, said, “The idea that you will be held personally accountable for your decisions can be a powerful conditioning element for how people undertake the way that they do their jobs.”

She noted, “People who do not have long tenures in office may feel less risk that they will face a situation of being held accountable for the results of their decisions.”

She mentioned congressional hearings about failed defense programs in which the question was about who was responsible. “The answer came back from the witness saying, ‘Well, it was our predecessors one or two generations removed.’ ”

Retired Vice Adm. David J. Venlet, a former head of Navy Air Systems Command who for two years was executive program officer for the controversial F-35 Lightning II strike fighter, told the panel, “You need to stay long enough in a job so that you can genuinely be involved in the messy attributes of it . . . up to your elbows in mistakes and problems and not just flit because you’re trying to get breadth” or taking jobs just to “punch their ticket” for further promotion.

O’Rourke added that keeping contract managers on the job closes the loop on accountability. No consequences for poor decisions means “the message sent back to the system is that perhaps the same thing can happen in the future.”

●Interservice rivalry and even intraservice competition have far from ended, and they harm the procurement system.

Brett Lambert, formerly deputy assistant secretary of defense for manufacturing and industrial base policy and now a senior fellow at the National Defense Industrial Association, told House members that each service has analytic capabilities but that at the level of the defense secretary’s office there is “a very small amount of analytic talent and resources dedicated to joint analysis.”

He described a defense secretary trying to decide an issue on the F-22 stealth fighter and getting two studies that reached exactly opposite conclusions.

Lambert called for “a system that would produce joint data for joint operational concepts with joint modeling that would help make . . . one path or another much more readily accessible to senior decision-makers.”

“A lot of people would say it’s not politically feasible,” he said, because of service rivalry, which often has congressional support.

Venlet pointed out that internal Defense Department elements show their destructive rivalries during the cost-cutting Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process.

“Bases, laboratories and [military] commands that need to work together both within and across service boundaries . . . are driven to be critical of everyone else to defend themselves,” he said.

“Dueling with data to show one’s own value and mission criticality creates wounds across organization relationships,” Venlet continued, and create unintended consequences that impact procurement.

McGrath also said “we have thousands of business IT systems in the Defense Department and they are not interoperable.”

Procurement problems will always exist in an enterprise as large as theDefense Department.

Lambert, however, pointed out one bad habit from the days when department funds were growing that is changing.

“When you had a program, even if it was hemorrhaging money, you just cauterized the wound with more money,” he said.

That led to false assumptions and a lack of trust between defense contractors and Pentagon officials. But those easy money days are gone, Lambert said, and work has begun on developing the needed trust between the Defense Department and industry.

For previous Fine Print columns, go
to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washingon Post. He first came to the paper in 1966 and has covered numerous subjects, including nuclear weapons and arms control, politics and congressional investigations. He was among Post reporters awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.
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