Thornberry’s first bite at DoD reform seeks to boost acquisition workforce, cut its paperwork

The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said Monday that his first crack at defense reform legislation will zero-in on a narrow but fundamental set of topics, including building DoD’s acquisition workforce and strengthening program managers’ place in the chain of command. Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) said Congress should not try to fix the DoD procurement system in a single year, but it’s time to at least get started.

In a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Thornberry laid out the broad strokes of a highly-anticipated reform agenda he first set to work on more than a year ago. He said a package of legislation he’ll offer on Wednesday should be seen as the first steps in a multiyear, incremental reform program for DoD, based on a guiding principle of “first do no harm.”

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas)
Indeed, after more than a year of intensive study, he said he and fellow committee members have concluded that some of their first steps should be to cut back some of the layers of administration Congress and DoD have imposed on the system throughout the last few decades. The legislation would, for example, eliminate dozens of reports Congress currently requires the department to draft and deliver each year.

“Over and over again, I hear that program managers are forced to manage the process instead of managing their programs. A lot of the certifications that apply to every single program are not terribly useful,” he said. “For example, several years ago, Congress was concerned that some programs were not paying enough attention to corroding metals. The bureaucracy’s response to that was that every program had to have a corrosion prevention report that had to be staffed and written before that program could proceed — even computer software, which is not generally regarded as a high corrosion risk. DoD has taken some steps to fix that, but it’s an example of how the system has gotten so bogged down.”

Also in the category of attempts to streamline the system: Thornberry said the legislation would insist on a clearer and more disciplined acquisition chain of command. It would convert several of the legal certifications that are currently required at major program milestones into simpler go-or-no-go management decisions. “And as a recovering lawyer, I can attest that the fewer lawyers that are involved in the process, the smoother it’s probably going to go,” he said.

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Thornberry said he wanted to strengthen the role of program managers in particular, while also making them more accountable for their decisions. The legislative package would make clear, for example, that the department’s testing community is not to make acquisition decisions, he said. It would also make it easier for DoD acquirers to make use of streamlined contracting processes that already exist, including by raising the dollar threshold for simplified acquisition procedures.

The current system — as retold by Thornberry from an account by one DoD procurement official — puts program managers in a role analogous to that of a bus driver trying to stay on a schedule, but who has a load of passengers each equipped with their own steering wheel and brake pedal.

“And when the bus ends up in the ditch, all the passengers scatter away and climb on another bus. Meanwhile, the driver has to figure out how to get back on the road,” Thornberry said. “We need to eliminate those other steering wheels and brakes so that there’s one decision maker, and we can hold that driver accountable for keeping us on time and on budget. That’s what I hope these proposals move us toward.”

DoD managers would have to develop written acquisition strategy

The proposal would mandate that all of DoD’s managers develop a formal, written acquisition strategy at the very outset of their programs before they gain approval for any funding. But that new document, Thornberry said, would take the place of at least six other byzantine certification processes the current system demands from them at various points in their lifecycles.

“The strategy will have to include what’s the most appropriate type of contract for a given acquisition, and this is a case where one size clearly does not fit all,” he said. “It’s got to consider whether multiyear contracts are appropriate, it’s got to include risk mitigation strategies and it’s got to consider incentives. For example, we want to consider shared savings on service contracts, which are not currently allowed.”

The draft legislation would also put a significant emphasis on the department’s acquisition workforce. The Defense Acquisition Workforce Development Fund (DAWDF), a temporary pool of money Congress established in 2009 to boost hiring and professional development within DoD, would become permanent.

Thornberry said he was also eager to eliminate military personnel practices that tend to discourage uniformed service members from serving in acquisition posts, including by ensuring they receive appropriate credit for joint duty — a vital requirement for officers who hope to attain senior ranks.

But the legislation would also impose new training requirements on the workforce, mandating that all DoD acquisition personnel be trained on commercial markets and commercial market research.

“If we’re going to be the world’s fastest incorporator of commercial technology, there’s going to have to be a lot of interaction between industry and government,” he said. “So we’re also going to require that there be mandatory ethics training that makes it absolutely clear what you can and cannot do.”

Thornberry said the legislative language he’ll offer on Wednesday is merely a discussion draft, not a take-it-or-leave it package, and that he wants as much input as possible between now and late April, when his committee will start marking up its version of the 2016 defense authorization bill, the legislative vehicle he wants to use for this year’s changes.

The proposal will also include draft report language intended to lay the groundwork for reform in future years. For example, it will require DoD to provide more data on service contracts, a subject the committee would prefer to tackle this year, but lacks sufficient information to draw up legislation.

Thornberry said Congress will need to take a patient and studious approach to acquisition reform, or it risks passing laws that hurt more than help.

“Part of improving the acquisition process involves changing the way Congress operates,” he said. “We’re also pretty tied to tradition, and we’re pretty difficult to change. But our military cannot be agile without Congress taking steps which allow and even encourage that sort of agility.”

As to this year’s proposals, Thornberry said he fully expects them to be criticized for not going far enough.

“That criticism is going to be exactly right,” he said. “It’s not enough, it doesn’t try to be enough, but it’s at least a start. It’s a start that tries to focus on the basics of the acquisition process: our people, the strategy and the decision-making chain to buy goods and services. But we have a unique opportunity right now to make needed reforms, and we can’t waste this opportunity.”

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