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Innovation in Acquisition: A Clarion Call

Section 809 Panel’s Chair, Dave Drabkin talks acquisition innovation with Integrity in an exclusive four-part interview series about the urgent and important need to improve Defense (and Federal) Acquisition.

The four-part series will feature discussion around:

  • the recent completion of the Section 809 Panel’s work, including any twists and turns along the way from inception
  • a few potential nuggets or considerations (from agency and industry perspectives) for bearing fruit by implementing the Section 809 Panel’s recommendations (what could be done now, positioning, etc.),
  • discussion about the Panel’s legacy and what could come next with Federal and Defense Acquisition in general.

This is Part 1 of the series.

“Put DoD’s Acquisition System on a war footing.”  That message conveys how important Dave Drabkin, Section 809 Panel Chair thinks it is to accelerate the rate of improvement for the Defense Acquisition System to keep pace with near-peer competitors and non state actors. Since the inception of the current Defense Acquisition System last century, it can be said the process has contributed enormously to equipping the best force in the world to defend our nation and our way of life. However, given the current state of the environment, in which the pace, quantity, and complexity of threats and technological-related opportunities arise, Dave is steadfastly resolute in the importance of adapting the Defense Acquisition System so that it can thrive in this new type of environment, and deliver better capabilities “inside the turn of near-peer competitors and non state actors.”  That resolve, along with his numerous career accomplishments led to his selection as Chair of the National Defense Authorization Act directed Section 809 Panel, which prepared 98 recommendations to both Congress and the Secretary of Defense (SECDEF) to improve the Defense Acquisition System.  The Panel’s work may be found here.  Also, Dave’s bio can be found here.

Let’s start with your quote regarding the “need to put DoD’s acquisition system on a war footing.”  Tell me about the context for that quote.

Sure. Well, the focus of the 809 panel was to deliver capability to the warfighter inside the turn of near-peer competitors and non state actors. And in order to do that, we have to begin to emphasize the value of time from the instant that a requirement is identified to the actual delivery of a capability to an operator. And by the way, it doesn’t just have to be warfighters in the field.  It could apply across the government, to everyone involved in delivering services to taxpayers, fighting diseases, developing pharmaceuticals, vaccines, etc. I mean there’s no aspect of what the government buys and delivers as a service to our citizens that shouldn’t require a refocus on valuing time.

In fact, recently I heard the administrator of OFPP talk about his particular challenges and one of them was to just get the requirements for the customer. And so, DoD, in order to meet the challenges specific to its functions, has to change the approach it has used since the end of World War II, which is, “We’ll develop it, whatever time it takes, it takes.” Because in the end, we always deliver capabilities which dominate the space that DoD occupies.” We can’t do that anymore. The marketplace is developing innovation faster and across all of the various sectors that make up a global market. Innovation itself changes not every six months, but in some cases every day, every hour. And to have a system that isn’t focused on appreciating the way innovation changes in the marketplace is putting us behind, when it comes to the competition with those near-peer competitors. We’re being technically outmatched in various aspects of the market today. And part of the reason is because we haven’t been able to change our approach from the end of World War II where we had an assembly line mentality reflecting the industrial age. We’re in the information age now and transitioning to the age of artificial intelligence.

So, when you talk about changing the approach from World War II, one of the concepts that came out of the Section 809 Panel’s work was this “dynamic marketplace.”

Yes, the marketplace changes rapidly, continually. That’s why the term is “dynamic.” It’s not static. It’s not predictable anymore, to the extent it ever was. It certainly isn’t now. We have to recognize that the marketplace is dynamic, that it is ever-changing and changing frequently and rapidly. We have to appreciate how the marketplace operates and we have to conform our practices to the dynamic nature of the marketplace so that we can take advantage of the innovation that the marketplace offers us….and our competitors, whether they’re Russia, China, or ISIS.

Got it. And when you talk about the importance of valuing time from requirement to delivery of capability to operators or stakeholders (i.e., going from concept through sustainment), are you referring specifically to major systems acquisition program management?

Well, the term “sustainment” really has major systems connotations, but it applies to everything we buy, even consumables. Our system has to recognize that we won’t be developing many solutions but rather identifying innovations that already exist in the marketplace and adapting them to our needs or purposes. Our current process for doing that can’t be used anymore. We can’t identify a possible innovative solution in the marketplace and then take 18 months to buy it because, by the time we buy it, it’s changed, and our competitors have acquired it themselves, put it in the hands of their operators, and they’ve learned how to employ it, we’re playing catchup. Our process is simply not focused on the urgency created by the changing nature of innovation in the marketplace itself. That’s why we need to put DoD’s acquisition system on a war footing, giving it greater flexibility while keeping true to our tenets of competition, although competition may need to be redefined in the marketplace that exists today, transparency and integrity. Those hallmarks of our system need to continue, even with a Defense Acquisition System on a war footing, they just have to be redefined to reflect what’s going on in the marketplace today.

So, Dave, are you talking about the need for speed, but not at the expense of compromising our nation’s hallmark characteristics?

Everything we do has to be true to the tenets of what makes America great. And competition, transparency, and integrity are what distinguishes America from almost everyone else in the world. We already have the most transparent society, even though many of our citizens will complain about the lack of transparency. You can find out about what the DoD buys, who they buy it from and what we spend to buy it, unlike with some of our colleagues in the EU or China or Russia. We have tremendous transparency. Our commitment to competition is unparalleled across the world. And of course, integrity is one of the things that we have focused on. And while we’ve not perfected it, it will never be perfected because we have human beings involved in the process. But again, we have less corruption in the federal acquisition process than any other country in the world. And those are all things that are important tenets of our society, which, even as we recognize the need for speed – we have to ensure that we don’t sacrifice. We may need to change or re-interpret some concepts, for example, what does competition really mean? In fact, there were those who argued to us during the Section 809 panel’s deliberations that our process today is actually anti-competitive. That it doesn’t take advantage of all of the capabilities that the marketplace has to offer and when you review, for example, our RFP process, it’s true. We post RFPs for everybody to see on various government sites, but in order for you to compete in that process, you have to understand that process and the systems that support it. You have to register in SAM. You have to then follow it. And there’s a large segment of the marketplace who doesn’t know anything about the process, or And when we get to the point where we publish an RFP, we wait and see who submits a proposal and then we whittle down those offers to a winner without looking at other companies in the marketplace who could offer the same product or service at a competitive price that would meet, or better meet, our needs. Competition as we practice it today actually becomes anti-competitive. Perhaps it’s time for us to reevaluate how we can take more advantage of innovation that exists in the marketplace better serving our operators and ultimately, the taxpayer.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of Integrity’s exclusive interview with Dave Drabkin.