When Acquisition Undersecretary Frank Kendall released Better Buying Power 3.0 last month, he charged the roughly 150,000 DoD acquisition professionals with a mammoth responsibility: Preserve the American military's "technological superiority." To do so, they will have to create operational efficiencies and concrete innovations from 33 pages of text, written from the highest perch in the Pentagon.
BBP 3.0 positions the procurement workforce to succeed in this mission in many respects, but there are certain issues the initiative leaves open or fails to address, making the acquisition community's task of putting the initiative in motion a challenging one.
Boosting the DoD's in-house engineering capacity sits at the core of Kendall's strategy. Kendall hits this point from both immediate and long-term positions. To give the acquisition corps a sudden jolt, he urges his foot soldiers to better exploit the many "physics-based tools, models, data and engineering facilities" available and necessary to shepherd defense systems through the acquisition lifecycle.
He pairs this directive with department-wide advocacy for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) "education and interest in careers in STEM areas." It is a gamble to commit limited resources in this direction when millennials could very well turn to Google or Lockheed Martin with their technical knowledge, yet the DoD has no choice but to make the investment and hope.
One angle that BBP 3.0 misses is putting technical knowledge to use in a contracting environment. All too often, key nuances get lost in communication between requirements developers — those who conceptualize the desired solutions — and the contracting staff that must transport them through the system.
To get the greatest return from this infusion of engineering capability, Defense Acquisition University (DAU) trainers and acquisition managers must ensure the rank-and-file can translate between the worlds of technology and contracting; in the DoD, innovation is just a buzzword without a contract vehicle alongside it.
Along with enhanced engineering skills, preserving our technical edge will depend upon business savvy. BBP 3.0 highlights a variety of heavy-duty analytical weapons to help procurement specialists make sense of our colossal defense-industrial base, such as should-cost analysis and performance-based logistics. The initiative also stresses the importance of navigating the nuances across the contracting landscape.
However, the jury is still out on whether the Pentagon's acquisition workforce has command over complex analytical techniques. DAU is doing its part, recently releasing a "BBP Should-Cost Portal" to deliver best practices to procurement personnel. Nevertheless, the department needs to expand its analytical capacity if the acquisition function is to break its habit of cost overruns and schedule delays.
There are similar concerns on the contracting front. Acquisition veterans are worried that the double-hump workforce profile — lots of fresh faces while lots are inching up on retirement — will leave the DoD ill-equipped to handle increasingly complex contracting challenges. Though BBP 3.0 does not mention it, the DoD's buying arm needs expanded mentoring and general training for newcomers; without such knowledge-sharing, contracting skills will drop off considerably.
Even with an uptick in engineering and business skills, the acquisition workforce will be hard-pressed to drive long-term improvements if tenure remains an issue. You can prioritize and recruit the skills needed for prolonged technical dominance, but a rapid spin-cycle between positions prevents personnel from fully realizing their potential.
Effectively sidestepping this sensitive issue, BBP 3.0 just calls for "added training, experience, and education to retain and grow competency and technical expertise." Without getting into the how of retention strategy, institutional memory of technologies and processes will fade.
To correct this long-standing problem, the services should direct their energies to the civilian side of the workforce equation, as the rotation process for active duty military is far less malleable. The priority should be to cultivate a top-class cadre of civilian acquisition professionals who can either take on top posts at buying centers or as deputies to fast-moving military managers; either way, a civilian anchor can provide and maintain long-term insights, helping the department derive the greatest value out of BBP's investment strategy.
At the Center for Strategic and International Studies last month, Kendall was asked when he would start working on Better Buying Power 4.0. Chuckling, he responded that BBP 3.0 will be the doctrine of the day for at least the next year or two. In this answer, he is conceding that the ball is no longer in his court.
Now, it is up to the 150,000 personnel at research labs, testing facilities, and depots to make good on BBP 3.0's marching orders. Incremental tinkering and buy-in from the services should help as things get rolling. However, if the implementation force remains hindered by these open concerns, then the need for BBP 4.0 may come more quickly than Kendall anticipates.
Alex Haber, is a business analyst in the national security practice at Censeo Consulting Group, and Raj Sharma is CEO and co-founder of Censeo.