Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Defense Acquisitions: Where Should Reform Aim Next?

An alternative title for this GAO report might be, "Defense Acquisitions: Constantly Reforming." We've been "reforming" for decades with such little variation in results that "Acquisition Reform" has become nearly impossible to take seriously:

Let's just skip the acquisition reform charade... Another blue-ribbon study, more legislation and a new slogan will not make it happen at last...
Prof. H. Sapolsky, MIT

Luckily, this latest GAO report on the problem has no sweeping "blue ribbon"-style reform suggestions. There seems to be a pretty pragmatic recognition that perverse incentives are largely the reason that many of the grandiose reform efforts of the past were doomed to failure:
Reforms that focus on the methodological procedures of the acquisition process are only partial remedies because they do not address incentives to deviate from sound practices. Weapons acquisition is a complicated enterprise, complete with unintended incentives that encourage moving programs forward by delaying testing and employing other problematic practices. These incentives stem from several factors. For example, the different participants in the acquisition process impose conflicting demands on weapon programs so that their purpose transcends just filling voids in military capability. Also, the budget process forces funding decisions to be made well in advance of program decisions, which encourages undue optimism about program risks and costs. Finally, DOD program managers' short tenures and limitations in experience and training can foster a short-term focus and put them at a disadvantage with their industry counterparts.

Drawing on its extensive body of work in weapon systems acquisition, GAO sees several areas of focus regarding where to go from here:
  • at the start of new programs, using funding decisions to reinforce desirable principles such as well-informed acquisition strategies;
  • identifying significant risks up front and resourcing them;
  • exploring ways to align budget decisions and program decisions more closely; and
  • attracting, training, and retaining acquisition staff and managers so that they are both empowered and accountable for program outcomes.
These areas are not intended to be all-encompassing, but rather, practical places to start the hard work of realigning incentives with desired results.

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