A line of M113A3/BMP-2 Opposing Forces Surrogate Vehicles await the final production at Anniston Army Depot’s Combat Vehicle Repair Facility in Alabama, Oct. 2, 2017.

A line of M113A3/BMP-2 Opposing Forces Surrogate Vehicles await the final production at Anniston Army Depot’s Combat Vehicle Repair Facility in Alabama, Oct. 2, 2017. Photo by Jeffrey Cleghorn

A Baby-Step Solution for Improving the Defense Acquisition System

Establish a source selection schedule and keep to it. Simple. Right?

It’s not the hard solutions to problems that tie bureaucracies in knots. It’s the simple solutions that bureaucracies make hard. For example, there is a very simple step that could boost the efficiency of Defense Department purchasing of weapons, equipment and services. Its most important characteristics are that 1) it is doable, and 2) it relies on normal order. In other words, the acquisition community can embrace it without legislation or policy adjustments. Furthermore, it can be applied to small acquisition programs as well as large.

The solution is to establish a source selection schedule and keep to it. Simple. Right? Program leaders must merely think through carefully what it will take to publish a Broad Area Announcement or Request for Information or Market Survey, a Draft Request for Proposal and a Final Request for Proposal. Refine a draft schedule until you are confident it can be met. Then publish the schedule and stick with it. I know what you are thinking: “Isn’t that what the program manager or Program Executive Office is supposed to do?” Yes, of course, that is what the program manager or PEO is supposed to do. But, nine times out of ten the schedule is never executed as published, if the schedule is published at all.

Last year, SMA, Inc., looked at 18 acquisition programs — 14 Army, two Air Force, two Navy. These programs were picked because they were large, with an average value of $1.4 billion, and because ample data about their source selection and award schedule were available through GovWinIQ. The study aimed to determine whether significant acquisition programs could reasonably have the source selection and award schedules accelerated. Published in August, the research found that program management missed 93 percent of the anticipated source selection schedule dates, and by an average of 238 days. The reasons included delays in Defense Department “internal reviews and coordination,” delays in funding approval, additional time required for “source selection process events” and completing independent cost estimates, and discovering that the request for information had been issued prematurely. 

The cause for concern is that the published schedule is completely within the control of the PEO or program manager. I recognize that there are myriad chefs in this kitchen, but there is plenty of history on source selection schedules, and the PEO or program manager has that history to use in building a schedule that can be kept.

All too often, the PEO or the program office become enamored with the process of putting the source selection documents together and neglect the reason for that process: meeting a schedule that will help the industry prepare the most straightforward, low-risk, and reliable proposal. Focus on process is part of the workings of a bureaucracy and a pernicious phenomenon that can become a pervasive part of the acquisition culture. There is no penalty for acquisition programs that fail to issue or meet a well-thought-out source selection schedule, and therefore no incentive to do so.

On the other hand, the consequence of not having a reasonably reliable schedule is that the aerospace and defense companies that are going to compete for the defense programs have no idea how to plan and allocate their resources. Companies cannot afford to engage bid and proposal teams who sit idle while waiting for source selection to progress. Uncertainty creates risk and risk costs money. In some form or fashion, that cost is added to the price of the weapon or service. From my experience working with a small business that intended to bid on a small business service contract, delays of three to four months in RFP release causes significant turbulence in attempting to manage and allocate resources. 

Recently, the Defense Department held an “industry day” for a significant source selection. Generally, these events allow interested companies to gather with program leaders and staff to learn about the government’s vision and source selection strategy for the program — in other words, how it intends to run the competition. Among the more significant bits of information are various program dates — for example, for the release of the draft request for proposals and the contract award.

The industry day program started. The first speaker rose and addressed the room, which was packed with industry representatives eager to learn more about the program. She said, “First, let me tell you we will not be talking about schedule, and will not be taking questions on what the schedule will be. Second, the PEO is very sorry, but he will not be able to join us this morning.” The presentation moved on to PowerPoint charts that parroted back information that was in the request for information published in the Federal Business Opportunities. The question that leaped to my mind was, “So why am I here? You’re not going to let me in on your schedule, which means I can’t properly plan and allocate my workload. And your leadership decided that this was not important enough to show up.”

Is there hope for improvement? There appears to be. Ellen Lord, the new Defense Undersecretary for Acquisition and Sustainment, has made clear her desire to shorten source-selection timelines. At the October AUSA conference, for example, she said her first objective is to halve the time it takes to go from requirement to request for information (RFI) to request for proposal (RFP). “No kidding – we’re going to get there on that,” she said.

Lord underlined her goals in her December testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee. Here’s one exchange with Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D.:

Senator Rounds: Is there [a] goal for cutting back acquisition times?
Ms. Lord: Twelve months for major programs.
Senator Rounds: From 2.5 years to 12 months?
Ms. Lord: Correct.
Senator Rounds: Okay.

If this initiative that Lord clearly wants to achieve is translated to the Program Executive Office and program management level, this will spell good news for the aerospace and defense industry. As more and more of the large acquisition programs are moved to the military services to manage, the undersecretary continues to wield considerable influence in ensuring well-structured source selection schedules that are accomplished on time. Another reason for optimism is that the Deputy Secretary of Defense and the new Chief Management Officer are changing how the Department does business to make it run more efficiently. Crucially, these “business modernization” changes are tied directly to the 2018 National Defense Strategy, giving efficiency a level of importance and senior management emphasis it has not always had.  Good leadership will translate that emphasis for effective business operations into action for the PEO and individual program management.  

We are too painfully aware that “hope” is not a strategy. But these developments appear to clear the way for simple solutions — like making and sticking to a schedule — that will benefit industry, the Department, and the American people alike.