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Making the FAR Sing to Execute Work Quickly

This is the final part of a four-part interview series with Section 809 Panel’s Chair, Dave Drabkin who talks with Integrity about the urgent and important need to improve Defense (and Federal) Acquisition.  To read prior parts of this series, please click here for part 1, here for part 2 and here for part 3.

What would you say was the biggest surprise along the way?

I was surprised with the venture capitalists we talked to who said to us that they do not advise their clients to do business with the government. When the venture capitalists said that to us, and quite a few of them did, that to me was very surprising. Here we have the companies who are providing the funds to start-up companies to go out and do innovative work and when they’re advising the people who they’re giving the monies to not to spend effort to sell to the government, that’s surprising and it reveals a real danger to the government’s ability to access the innovation that these companies ultimately develop.

That’s interesting. Let’s explore that. I mean it’s probably multifactorial, I’d imagine, but I’d surmise Intellectual Property (IP) is a relatively big factor. Did they identify the intellectual property as one of the reasons behind that sentiment?

IP factored into their advice. The venture capitalists don’t want the gold that’s developed by their clients to be diminished in value because the government gets unlimited rights to use the IP in the market. So that’s one issue. But there were some other issues that the venture capitalists identified. It was the complication of the contracts that are entered into between the government and the private sector and the time it takes to “get to no.”

You mentioned the clauses, earlier?

Yes, that was one complication. Then, there’s the way in which you have to change the way you do business with regard to your purchasing system, your accounting system, and the other four systems that– you know, the six business systems that the government requires for them to do business with DoD. Start-up companies don’t need those systems to do business in the private sector.

The amount of time it takes (for contracts to be awarded) was a major issue. Many of them made this comment – that they’d like to get to “no” in six months or less instead of a taking eighteen months and then they may or may not get the award. The speed with which we make decisions was a big factor. In fact, I think that was the first factor that many of the venture capitalist mentioned to us. Then they talked about IP, and then they talked about the complicated nature of the business arrangement we enter into. So those three reasons surprised me.

So, regarding venture capitalists and their role in bringing innovation into the defense sector (from non-traditionals in particular), you were hearing that the most significant obstacle is the time it takes to award a contract?

Yes, number one was the time it takes to make a deal.

You know this. Private sector companies operate on a credit line. Many of them, their credit line is good for – they might have six months’ worth of operating capital available to them maybe. They’ve got to pull in capital in order to keep going. Waiting 18 months is a non-starter. That was the first of the three issues that they identified as reasons for not doing business.

The Panel provided reports to congress and DoD. For folks who may not have a good grasp of Federal Acquisition, like some congressional staffers given their minimal exposure to it, how did you communicate the findings and recommendations in a way that those stakeholder groups could understand?

We were very lucky because our audience for the report in DoD were folks who understood acquisition – people who’ve been working for years and years. But on Capitol Hill, there’s only a handful of those folks. The average staffer has minimal experience in acquisition and contracting. And the average member also doesn’t have an in-depth understanding, if they have any understanding at all, of our government-wide acquisition process. And fewer still understand all of its intricacies. If you ask somebody about the Buy American Act on the Hill, the average member will say, “Well, it means you could only buy an American product.” That’s not what it means at all, as you and I both know. That also happens with the domestic sourcing requirements of the Berry amendment. There isn’t a general understanding of the Berry Amendment and how it relates to the Buy American Act. So back to your original question. The audience for our report in DoD was people who already understand the acquisition process; on the Hill, it was a limited audience, and we talked to them on a frequent basis about what we were doing and what we were thinking and to get their feedback. And we did that, as I said, on a frequent basis, usually quarterly, if not more frequently.

Dave, if you’re an agency leader or a leader and practitioner in the acquisition field, what would you do now to position your organization (or your clients) to leverage the lessons learned and the recommendations from the Section 809 Panel? I know you touched on the low-hanging fruit earlier, but how would you approach it from a change management perspective, or through an organizational culture lens?

Well, the most significant thing that could be done is to change the way we manage the workforce because all of this, all of the rules, all of the regulations, all of the processes are dependent upon people who do the work. We found that, where you had people who knew how to make the “FAR sing,” they could do anything, literally anything, and they could do it quickly. They know how to do it. They know how to use the rules as a tool to accomplish the mission, as opposed to using the tools as an excuse not to do something.

The people who can make the FAR sing, they can do anything. The problem is, we don’t have a choir of people who know how to make the FAR sing. And so the most significant thing that people could do right away is start or continue or redouble their efforts on developing their people so they can make the FAR or DOD 5000 or whatever, sing. Part of that means that managers today have to be mentors. They have to focus their attention more on helping their folks mature and become journeymen in our business and less on carrying a workload of their own which requires them to get out as many contracts a day or a week as the people who work for them. They have to not only focus on developing their people, they also must provide them with top cover. The people who work for them have to know that, if they take risk that’s reasonable and documented, that they’re going to be supported, and they’re going to have a backstop. Somebody’s got their back if a problem occurs, which is the second thing.

People have to understand that there’s risk in many acquisitions. And if somebody does their best and uses the FAR as a tool, as a sword, to get their job done and something goes wrong, that’s okay. It’s not the end of the world, right? It’s part of the growth process. I mean, obviously, it’s got to be risk based. It’s got to demonstrate that it was a question of judgment and they did their best. That would make the biggest and most significant difference in terms of our recommendations.

And then, as I mentioned, there are some things that they could do that would reduce the burden that the government has in acquisition by simplifying the process where they have the authority already to do that, allowing them to refocus the attention of acquisition staff on the more complicated, more risky work that needs to be done. They could do those things and that would make the most significant difference. Beyond that, I think our recommendations on portfolio management, and our recommendation to create this new category of goods and services and solutions called “readily available,” would have the most significant impact on our ability to deliver capability to the war fighter inside the turn of near peer competitors and not state actors.

At the end of the day, if we don’t figure out how to get the solutions to our operators faster than our near-peers and adversaries do it, we’re going to lose the race.

Yes, I understand what you mean in terms of providing “top cover” or room for acquisition officials to make potential mistakes in using the FAR as a tool as long as they do their best and apply critical thinking skills.  I appreciate your time, sir.  It has been a real pleasure speaking with you.

It’s been great.