Cutting through the Red Tape to Faster, Smarter Acquisition

The fundamental mismatch between the speed of acquisition and the speed of government is an endless topic of conversation among government and industry alike. But while most officials tend to blame the rules, some leaders believe hide-bound people and processes are a bigger problem.

Lt.Gen. William Bender“Culturally, we have not necessarily come to that awareness that it takes a team,” said Air Force Lt.Gen. William Bender, the service’s chief information officer, before launching into an examination of a typical Air Forces systems development program during the Oct. 4 Synergy Forum in Washington, D.C. That typical program, he said, begins with a two-year process “to determine if a materiel or non-materiel solution is required,” continues with a year to define the requirements, “two more years to get it into the budget, and four years to deliver it.”

The status quo is not working, he said.

Bender’s solution is a new acquisition framework he’s developing and hoping to sell to Air Force leadership. Others are trying their own solutions.

At the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), CIO Luke McCormack is experimenting with “Reverse Industry Days,” a new twist on the standard acquisition tactic of presenting speeches to industry business development teams and hoping the words inspire good ideas. The twist: DHS fills the room with several hundred of its own acquisition and IT staff, and brings in industry to share its ideas with them.

“We see the ability to get rapid access to emerging technology as a national interest,” McCormack said during a panel discussion on IT acquisition at the Association of the U.S. Army Annual Meeting Oct. 5. At the Reverse Industry Day, guest speakers from industry shared their views on “about the barriers that they perceive in trying to understand where our agency is going and what we’re signaling or not signaling,” he said. “That has been extremely valuable to us.”

In fact, the first event wasn’t yet half over when DHS decided to plan a second one. No specific programs or procurements are on the table, leaving the discussion to cover both technology opportunities and cultural and institutional roadblocks. “It’s just purely about a better way to interact with that community,” McCormack said.

Doug Wiltsie, director of the Army Rapid Capability Office, is focused entirely on breaking through barriers to get needed capability to warfighters as fast as possible. Picking up on McCormack’s approach, he said that mission includes asking: “What are the inhibitors? Do we control the inhibitors? And can we eliminate them?”

Inhibitors can come in all shapes and sizes. For some, it can be acquisition officers who use the Federal Acquisition Regulations like a cudgel to kill new initiatives. For others, it’s the struggle to understand the art of the possible in the midst of low expectations.

Victor Hernandez, director of program management for the Army’s Program Executive Officer/Enterprise Information Systems, said his organization buys a lot of off-the-shelf technology that, at least in theory, should be easy to procure. “But regardless of how mature those technologies are, we still have to go through an acquisition process that was built for [custom] business systems and doesn’t lend itself to IT systems,” he said. “Sometimes that process slows us down.”

Custom development is even more challenging. McCormack and DHS are pursuing a new program they call FLASH – Flexible Agile Support to the Homeland. The focus is bringing in open source technologies, he said, and to tap into experts at both traditional and non-traditional government contractors.

Under FLASH, DHS encouraged interested suppliers to first submit a video explaining their approach, promising a basic reality check in exchange. Vendors were then told whether they were on the right track or what they needed to work on. Next, selected vendors were invited to bring developers into the agency. “We brought them in and we actually had them develop code with us on site,” McCormack said. The idea was to see how the vendor employed agile development methodology first hand.

“We’re still in the middle of that process,” McCormack said. The agency was so impressed they’ve already begun talking about a follow-on Flash 2. “We think this is absolutely the way to buy software development services going forward.”

John Gilligan, a former Air Force CIO and now president and CEO of Schafer Corp., said cultural resistance gets in the way of progress, not because people want to block change, but because they see protecting the status quo as part of their jobs. Citing his experience with consolidating network management during his Air Force tenure, he said cultural resistance was unrelenting. “And resistance was usually stated in these terms: ‘There is no way my boss is going to let somebody else manage the IT.’ And they believe that.”

So when CIOs want to start trying to do agile development in such an environment, the resistance is automatic. “That’s partially a manifestation of the rules,” he said. “But it’s more how the rules have been interpreted and executed over the years.”

Gillgan cited the TechFAR Handbook, created by the General Services Administration’s 18F Digital Services unit. The document lays out in detail how to manage agile development without going afoul of the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR), and he said it is valuable reading. The volume’s take away: “You can do agile development within the FAR, but you have to do it differently,” he said.

The document is laid out in a question-and-answer format and addresses the basics, step by step. For example, it asks:

Question:  Are agencies authorized to shape their IT software acquisitions around agile principles? The far does not expressly speak to agile concepts, such as refining technical solutions after contract award based on testing and customer feedback or buying a product with a process rather than an identified solution.

Answer: The principles of agile software development are consistent with modular contracting, which is discussed in FAR Part 39, Acquisition of Information Technology. In addition, as a general matter, an agency may pursue acquisition practices that are not expressly endorsed in the FAR, including agile software development, as long as they are not expressly prohibited by law.

But that alone is not enough. Getting buy-in from acquisition insiders as well as IT managers and top management is also essential. Rich Mendelowitz, chief technology officer at IT systems integrator General Dynamics Information Technology, said there’s a large body of knowledge available to acquisition officers who follow traditional contracting processes, but far less available on topics like modular contracting. “Agile is more complex to contract for,” he said.

Mendelowitz said his company sponsors outreach and education efforts to across the acquisition workforce. “We’re working with professional organizations like the Professional Services Council (PSC) and Coalition for Government Procurement (CGP) to help build acquisition workforce skills in government,” Mendelowitz added. “We also sponsor government Education with Industry (EWI) interns to help future government acquisition leaders improve their knowledge and skills in complex and agile contracting approaches”

Acquisition people will struggle with the most basic premises in agile development, said Gilligan, who also spent time as an acquisition officer and program executive officer. “If you want to do agile, the fundamental premise is you do not know what the requirements are,” he said. “But if you are in acquisition, how far do you get if you go in asking for money and say, ‘I do not know what the requirements are?’”

That’s why top organizational management has to be on board. Indeed, Lt. Gen. Michael Williamson, director of the Army Acquisition Corps and the military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, training and logistics, said senior leaders have to push the issue harder in order to break through institutional inertia.

“The FAR gives us the ability to do pretty much everything we want,” he said. “But urban legend gets in the way.”

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