Why the Pentagon wants to make software buying easier

This interview with Tory Cuff, senior advisor for agile acquisitions, explores the Adaptive Acquisition Framework's special software pathway and DOD's pilot experiment with "colorless" money.

Technology moves fast and the Defense Department hasn't been able to keep up. From the Pentagon to the Hill, there's been repeated talks of reforming acquisition and, increasingly, budgeting practices so that military departments can buy commercially available technologies and develop experimental capabilities "at the speed of relevance" with broad policy efforts, such as the DOD CIO's digital modernization strategy, to congressional authorities such as other transaction agreements to quicken the pace.

But are the Pentagon's efforts working? FCW talked with Tory Cuff, senior advisor for agile acquisitions to the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisitions and Sustainment, to get a better understanding of how the Defense Department's recent initiatives to uncomplicate software buying -- the Adaptive Acquisition Framework, which reworked DOD acquisition policy into six pathways with one just for software, and a suite of software pilots using "colorless" money -- are faring.

"We are in the thick of data collection and then moving, hopefully here soon, to data analysis," Cuff said. "But this will take some time for the department to truly understand the impact of all these efforts that we are doing and updating within acquisition, within the Budget Activity 8...it will seem like a lag, but there is work going on."

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

We're coming up on about a year of the Software Acquisition Pathway [which was finalized in October 2020] being out. So what have you been up to with pushing the SWAP out in the last year and what your goals are going forward?

Of course...although the software pathway, as you pointed out, is the newer of the pathways, it's part of this overall framework that we've released to provide program managers a simplified policy that's empowering, and creates a structure for them to incentivize and provide the opportunity for tailoring. And that really kind of comes together with a combination of all of the six pathways.

As far as the benchmarks that we're looking towards...when we're making a large update to policy, one of the first hurdles is actually making the policy available. The second measure that we're starting to look into is adoption of policy. And then the third is the angle, the programmatic impact. As I mentioned, we have accomplished a first, but this is a working document as [the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition & Sustainment] is really trying to make sure that we have established feedback with multiple programs across all the pathways so that we have the opportunity to update and tailor and be more responsive and dynamic to the changing technological and adversarial landscape -- with the underlying policies too.

To date, going back and focusing in on the software pathway, we've had 20 programs adopt [the SWAP], which I think is a great sign. Because one of the things to keep in mind is most of the programs in the department were existing. So they already had approved acquisition strategies that were developed at the beginning of the program.

This adoption that we're seeing is not only new starts, but programs that were mid-execution that have chosen to switch over to the software pathway. We saw a similar result from the middle-tier [acquisition pathway], which has about 75 programs using it.

But we are in kind of the data collection and waiting period to really validate that, since utilizing the policy is only the first step. The real goal, right, is are we able to respond to technology in a faster manner, the changing user need and adversarial landscape. And that's the hope with the introduction of all six of these pathways. The software pathway will be the one that we are focusing in on as far as it has the shortest cycle time with a year from first contract award to operational capability delivery. And so we are hopeful that the lessons learned from the software pathway can be extrapolated and applied across all six.

The other thing that we continue to do from an A&S perspective is the delegation of decision authority to the lowest level. And mainly that means, especially for the software pathway, the decision authority is within the services or the components. But we are trying to promote data transparency and shared situational awareness, aligning to the Deputy Secretary of Defense's "Creating Data Advantage" memo in May of this year.

So these partnerships, this constant collaboration, although we are not a reviewer, we try to consume the information to update the policy, but also so that A&S can be an advocate for programs as they are trying to incorporate new [approaches] to internal department, [Government Accountability Office], and Congress so that everyone understands kind of the changes that we've been making, since it was a very big overhaul.

So you put it out and you're tracking, at least with the software acquisition pathway, 20 programs. How many more do you think you can add before it closes out its first year? And then how long do you think it'll be before you can measure the impact that the pathway is having?

It's a constant cycle. A&S is trying to do a lot of outreach and provide the support as people are trying to navigate any new pathway or multi-pathway adoption. All the pathways have a lead within, acquisition enablers, that we provide and have a team so that if you are contemplating either as a new start or an existing program, we talk you through the options that you have.

There are programs that have given indication that they plan to adopt and switch to the software pathway, or just adopt wholeheartedly because they're a new start. But again, I can't quantify the exact number that would be completed by the end of September, because that's very much driven by their internal reviews...most of these programs are being reviewed and approved within the services. But we do support and help programs navigate.

As far as data coming in, I think we will start to see data over the next year to a year and a half. And as people continue to add in, that will provide even more insight.

So I can't give you a firm date...best guess is second quarter of FY, we're going into FY, 2022, or 2022. Hopefully, we'll start to see some initial data. But we want to make sure we're getting the wide span and not just the first couple systems, because we know there is so many unique capabilities in the department.

What about looking at the potential marrying of the software pathway and the Budget Activity 08 pilot programs?

Yes, of course….I'm the OSD lead for that effort. BA-08, right now, is not limited to one pathway...with a lot of our programs being existing, that have approved acquisition strategies, we didn't want to limit the intake of any specific pathway type at this time...to have the maximum ability to understand the secondary and tertiary impacts of a single appropriation.

Specifically, we wanted to cover capabilities that were business systems and integrated into warfighting capabilities. So at this time, not specifying it to a single pathway has proven valuable for that more wide span of program approaches and strategies. So that being said, there is alignment.

They both are founded on recommendations made by multiple studies, but the recent one that I think kind of really spurred a lot is the Defense Innovation Board "Software is never done" [report]. And so they had tenets of both trying to enable different parts of the department's processes to better align to modern software practices.

The software pathway, focusing on the acquisition approach, and then the Budget Activity 8, the single appropriation for software and digital technology, focusing on the planning, programming, budgeting and execution process or PPBE.

Specifically, both use the foundation of the FY 2018 NDAA section 873 and 870 for those agile Pilots as frameworks to help inform the pilots, and to support the initial kickoff -- at least the pilot in the sense of BA-08.

And we collaborate often about data collection and metrics. Not only within A&S we're having this discussion, but we're having it with CIO and the services and components of aligning our data to best commercial practices, and the data that they collect. And those are apparent both in the software pathway and BA-08 pilots.

The reason I ask is because when the budget was released, I remember seeing BA-08 and the software pathway mentioned together for certain programs. And so the first question in my mind was, this seems significant, particularly because the software pathway was so new. And then there's also been so much attention to these pilots. How is this even working out for DOD? Are there any future plans experimenting with the two?

We've definitely discussed it. And the alignment has been brought up. I think one of the things we're still working through, and it's a larger question of -- and Ms. Stacy Cummings [DOD's acting acquisition chief], really hit this point home of -- whatever we take to software, we don't want to constrain it so much that we don't extend the practices or the abilities, to the larger DOD systems. And especially with the initial way forward on 3D printing, and there are evolutions happening on the hardware side...But in digital manufacturing, there was a component that we've always wanted to keep in mind of making sure that if software, maybe, is our early indicator, or use case with a faster cycle time, making sure we don't over constrain its application and with a single appropriation.

So BA-08, as you mentioned, we put forward eight programs [that] kicked off in FY 2021, and the department submitted an additional eight programs to be included in the pilot in FY 2022.

Again, very similar to the approaches we're taking and other efforts in the software pathway and middle tier. It was a cognizant approach and the department is expanding this till have the greatest opportunity for learning and impact across services and capabilities. So we are excited to continue that process and hopeful.

Congress has been a great partner in this. So anything to PPBE we understand would be a big lift. So we want to make sure we are doing our due diligence on the impact, and scope increase helps us to truly understand that. So the multi-year pilot, the additional programs was always the hope and the intent, and we hope that we have that opportunity moving forward.

And since you brought it up, how important do you think having a program like NGEN? I know it got a lot of attention because it's the Navy's biggest IT program. How important is that to proving out the success, or the potential success, of BA-08?

I think all of the programs that the department has pitched today, or proposed, have their merits. They are unique and that's one of the things that we understand is true about most programs in the department, there are different decision teams, there's different users, there are different technological capabilities that are underlying them. And there are different sizes. So all these are factors as to what we are trying to get after: better understanding that.

So we were supportive and advocating, as well with the Navy, of their incorporation into the pilot. But again, this is also a partnership with Congress. So if they have feedback, that's what we listen to, as well, to understand what makes most sense for all the DOD and their stakeholders moving forward.

I'll switch back to the software pathway. What have you learned so far? I guess, you're 10 months in, what are some of the changes or tweaks or challenges that you've kind of encountered as these 20 plus programs have adopted it and what would you want to see be different as it continues to roll out?

I want to continue to make sure that we're learning as we get a larger adoption, so we have a bigger sample size to be gleaning and doing data analysis for. But I think overall, the thing that I can say between the update with AAF, the BA-08 pilot, the [DOD] CIO's efforts for software modernization and cloud adoption, I think what we're trying to do across the board is evaluate DOD's processes, policies and practices to make sure that we are aligning and enabling programs -- every program -- to meet the demand...but making sure that we're providing a cycle time that is as close to the change technology as feasible, keeping those other aspects in mind.

Photo courtesy Tory Cuff. This article first appeared on FCW, a Defense Systems partner site.

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