WASHINGTON — It is time for the U.S. Department of Defense to transition to a "mission first" approach to acquisition, which will require changing a number of restrictions currently in place, according to an interim report from a congressionally mandated research panel.
The report, released May 17 by the Section 809 Panel, emphasized that the Pentagon can get too bogged down in trying to meet the requirements put forth by the acquisition system, and it often ignores the simple question how best to meet war-fighter needs.
"Public policy requirements must be assessed to determine whether the costs, including time, outweigh the benefits to industry, government, and, in some cases, the regulations' intended beneficiaries," the report read. "To support such an effort, the FAR [Federal Acquisition Regulation] should be amended to emphasize that the primary goal of the acquisition process is to support the agency mission, and that promoting public policy objectives is a secondary goal of the process."
The panel, which was created under Section 809 of the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, is chaired by Deidre Lee, the former director of defense procurement and acquisition policy as well as the former Office of Federal Procurement Policy administrator. Lee was on hand with several members of the panel to present early findings to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, and his colleagues.
In some cases, the system is challenged by well-known big issues, such as a fear of using sole-source contracts where they make sense. Bill LaPlante, a former U.S. Air Force acquisition head now with the MITRE Corporation, said Pentagon officials "bend over backwards to do competition. When there is an obvious, quick solution ready to go, by just going sole source because it fits the mission, there is a very big reluctance to do it."
Another major issue identified by the panel is what Lee called the need to "decriminalize the commerce" — the idea that there are so many regulations in place that companies simply look at the DoD and decide not to bother. Or as LaPlante said, when it comes to small companies with concerns about intellectual property, "they should be scared" of working with the department.
But the challenges are not just big-picture issues. The panel highlighted how small regulations, often put in place for nonmilitary objectives, can create drag finalizing contracts. For example, there are clauses included in the FAR about ensuring contractors do not text while driving and that they must accept and circulate $1 coins.
There are "dozens, if not hundreds" of such rules in the FAR that Congress should look to change, Lee said — a review which should also cosnider if small business requirements hurt the Pentagon.
If the Section 809 Panel is able to have a lasting impact, that kind of call for direct action — laying out specific issues and exactly how Congress can act to fix them rather than general recommendations for broad change — will be what drives it, something the group seemed to acknowledge in its summary statement.
"The time for superficial conversation and insubstantial changes to regulations and statutes has passed," the panel wrote in its report. "The Section 809 Panel has no interest in putting patches on a broken system. ... We intend to take a big bite into real change, rather than just nibble around the edges. To do otherwise is to put our military’s mission and our nation’s safety and security at risk."
Ironically, the panel is very familiar with how the system can get choked up. Despite being launched in August, the panel was unable to hire staff until December and only got internet connectivity in its office in March.
As a result, Lee requested the group be given an extension to early 2019 before delivering a final report, which Thornberry seemed amenable to as long as the group files interim reports in the meantime so that Congress can continue to have "some meat to work with" in terms of reforms.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.