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No Need to Wait (Practical Ways to Improve Acquisition Fast)

This is part 3 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 part 1 and/or part 2, please click here for part 1 and here for part 2.

Dave, when you presented the recommendations, was there a macro prioritization schema you recommended in terms of implementing the recommendations, or do you anticipate each organization would determine that? That each organization would survey their environments against the recommendations and perhaps prioritize based on the chance of implementation success and seeing what they can do internally to address some “low hanging fruit,” without waiting on Congressional or external authorities.

In our road map, we did group the recommendations in what we thought were categories consistent with our view of the world. But we didn’t start out making the recommendations with that view in mind, except of course to achieve the end of delivering capability to the warfighter inside the turn of near-peer competitors and nonstate actors. Congress gave us discreet dates on which we had to deliver reports to it. And since we had to deliver our first report in 2018, obviously we were unable to predict what our continued research would lead us to in terms of recommendations. At the end, we were able look back to group them, and we prepared a road map to our recommendations which we delivered in February of 2019. After we presented our recommendations, several of the DoD acquisition executives asked us to share with them which of our recommendations we thought they could implement without waiting for Congress. We did prepare a list of those recommendations which we thought they could implement themselves rather than waiting for Congress to either direct them or provide them with authority to do. There were quite a few. Take the area of workforce as one example. We identified the fact that part of the problem the department is facing in recruiting people is that they now have, I think it’s a total of 44 separate statutory authorities when they hire acquisition professionals. And that creates a huge issue up front when people try to figure out which of the authorities actually apply to the recruitment action in question. And while Congress has given them all 44 authorities, they don’t have to use all 44, so we recommended that they winnow that number down, I think it was, to 7. They can’t change or repeal the other authorities. They don’t need to. They can simply agree that they will use only these approximately 7 authorities.

So those seven were selected based on the widest application?

Yes. We actually talked to the very people who are responsible for hiring people in the acquisition career field. We studied each of the statutory authorities themselves, and we also applied the experience of many of the commissioners who had actually been in the acquisition system hiring folks inside the department. All of those factors came together to identify the 7 which we thought they could themselves decide to use. That’s where our recommendation came from. We also talked about other workforce changes they could make to improve how we actually manage the workforce, for which they didn’t need Congressional direction or authority. We talked to them about changes they could make with how they buy commercial items, for which they don’t need Congressional authority, but which would make a huge difference in how they buy commercial items and other products and services. We talked to them about how they use multiple award IDIQ contracts and how they could themselves change the way they award actual task and delivery orders to reduce time- to reduce barriers and costs to the companies who deliver those items. We identified a number of these things that agencies can do themselves, and they can do very quickly, and we shared that with those acquisition executives who asked.

Could you please provide another example of some recommendations that could be prioritized for implementation based on impact or relative ease of implementation?

The definition for commercial items is statutory and there is not a lot of wiggle room for the service acquisition executives and DoD there. But, for example, many of the clauses that have been added to the purchase of commercial items since 1995 were added by either the department or by the FAR Council. They could, without congressional direction, remove – well, we said up to I think it was 100 of those – clauses that they’ve added since 1995.

Another thing that they could do themselves is make it clear that when you’re buying a commercial product or service, that you use simplified acquisition procedures. This is specifically authorized already in the FAR but currently is not the general practice. In fact, we found that, more often than not, people use FAR Part 15 source selection procedures even though they were authorized to use FAR Part 13 simplified acquisition procedures. They could change that by simply telling folks you can’t use FAR Part 15 source selection without coming and getting permission from someone very high up in the food chain, which would discourage them from doing it except when they really needed to. When they use task and delivery orders under an IDIQ contract, many of them are using FAR Part 15 source selection procedures. The FAR authorizes the use of Fair Opportunity, which is much simpler. They can change that by simply saying, “If you want to use FAR Part 15 source selection procedures, you have got to get permission.” This could incentivize folks to think more critically about using FAR Part 15 when a more streamlined approach could be used. And that can make a dramatic difference of how the department does its work. And for those companies that want to do business with the DoD, reducing the number of clauses in the commercial contracts would reduce the barrier to some of these companies who might do business with the DoD. Those are just some really simple examples of things that they can do without waiting for Congress.

Stay tuned for the Part 4 the finale of Integrity’s interview with Dave Drabkin.