We’re Not Playing Acquisition Pac-Man Anymore

Today’s defense acquisition officials have freedom of movement akin to an open-world game. They need to use it.

If you want to play a video game, there are two things you’ll need to know: how to move and how to score. In the Pac-Man era I grew up in, those were pretty easy things to learn: push the joystick, eat the dots, avoid the ghosts. 

It’s not that simple anymore. Gamers in 2019 perform a wider variety of tasks and thus require a more complex set of input options. Where Pac-Man worked fine with a single joystick, my PlayStation controller has two joysticks and 18 buttons. But despite the increase in complexity, gamers today still need to know the same two things: how to move, and how to score.

The defense acquisition community is in a similar situation. If you want to develop a new military system, program managers and contracting officers need to know what moves are available to them and how to score points, metaphorically speaking. 

At first glance, the acquisition system looks a lot like a Pac-Man screen. There are unbreachable walls that limit movements to pre-defined paths. Progress moves at a specified pace – there’s no accelerate button. Even worse, it is often necessary to revisit portions of the screen where the dots are already eaten and where the necessary movement does nothing to increase our score. Plus, those darn ghosts never stay blue for very long.

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On closer inspection, however, it turns out defense acquisitions have more in common with modern open-world games, which grant virtually unlimited freedom of movement. That’s not my opinion—it’s what the Federal Acquisition Regulation, or FAR, literally says. According to FAR Part 1.102(d), “each member of the acquisition team is to exercise personal initiative and sound business judgment.” That paragraph goes on to say that if a “strategy, practice, policy or procedure is in the best interests of the Government,” then it’s allowed.

This is not just an isolated line in an obscure corner of the FAR. It’s literally in the section titled “Guiding Principles.” The rest of the regulation is similar. For example, FAR Section 1.102-2(b)(2) says the acquisition system should “encourage innovation and local adaptation.” That’s some real freedom of movement.

As more evidence of the open world nature of the acquisition game, check out FAR Section 18.101 (Emergency Acquisitions). The “many acquisition flexibilities” available in an emergency actually “do not require an emergency declaration” in order to be used. You read that correctly. The Emergency Acquisitions section can be applied even in non-emergency situations. Acquisition professionals really can move almost anywhere.

This freedom of movement also extends to the question of pace. In the olden days, Pac-Man moved at a single constant speed. Gamers today can make their avatars crawl, walk, run, or sprint towards their objective. Unlike Pac-Man, acquisition professionals today have many opportunities to speed things up. Check out MITRE’s new Accelerate site for strategies on doing precisely that.

Exercising initiative, following your own judgment, encouraging innovation, accelerating your movements – these are the very definition of an “open-world” game. Pac-Man would be so jealous.

For a more detailed look at these options, download MITRE’s Agilities, Flexibilities, and Simplifications in the FAR. It’s a player’s manual for government contracting. Prefer a video walk-through? Check out this five-minute FAR talk from the Center for New American Security. 

What about scoring? Check out the Flexibility in Contracting Award, which aims to: “…recognize those acquisition programs and professionals that make the best use of the flexibilities and authorities granted by the Federal Acquisition Regulation and Department of Defense Instruction 5000.02. The award… shall recognize outstanding performers whose approach to program management emphasizes innovation and local adaptation, including the use of simplified acquisition procedures; inherent flexibilities within the Federal Acquisition Regulation...”

Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord presented these awards for the first time in February, recognizing top performers who, in her words, “demonstrated innovation and local adaptation by using the flexibilities and authorities granted by the FAR.” 

In a similar vein, the U.S. Navy launched the Agility and Accountability Awards Program. No doubt the other services will follow suit.

Clearly, the best way for an acquisition professional to earn a spot on the leaderboard is to move freely, decide quickly, use initiative, tailor the process, and exercise the full range of flexibilities granted by the FAR. 

This opens up all sorts of new acquisition strategies and opportunities, and the Defense Acquisition University’s new Adaptive Acquisition Framework (AAF) tool is a great place to learn more. 

Of course, not mean all movements are equally productive. It is entirely possible to wander aimlessly around an open world game without scoring any points at all. Yes, there are a lot of ways to move around, but the key is to select a path that advances the program and actually delivers effective new systems. The point is to be intelligently flexible, not to mindlessly color outside of every line you see.

Defense acquisition policy still has a lot of room for improvement. Some levels of this game have not yet been unlocked. However, flexibility and innovation are allowed, encouraged, and rewarded. These authorities are not restricted to specially identified innovation cells, nor are they limited to programs facing extraordinary circumstances. Instead, the flexible approach is the preferred way of doing business, the new standard for everyone. As these recent awards indicate, the Pentagon’s senior leaders are actively recognizing programs that take this approach. 

What does all that mean? In a nutshell, it means that if you want to score big points, it’s time to learn new moves and operate at a new pace. Ladies and gentlemen, we’re not playing Pac-Man anymore.