Section 809 chairman shares quick fixes for defense acquisition, no Congress needed

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Three reports and nearly 100 recommendations later, the Section 809 panel is set to wrap up July 14. While many of the panel’s suggestions will take time and resources to enact, the chairman says there are several that could be implemented “with a stroke of a pen.”

The panel, created in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, looked deeper at ways the Defense Acquisition System could deliver capabilities to warfighters easier and quicker than near-pier competitors and non-state actors. Dave Drabkin, panel chairman, said the Defense Department wasn’t doing the best job.

Dave Drabkin, Section 809 panel
Dave Drabkin, Section 809 panel chairman

“We looked at various aspects of the system that needed to be fixed, from our perspective,” Drabkin said on Federal Drive with Tom Temin. “One of our driving forces is we realized from the very beginning, or we all knew but we agreed, that the department doesn’t value speed, it doesn’t value time. However long it takes, it takes. So if it takes 18 months to buy a computer, it takes 18 months. In the private sector, it doesn’t take that long.”

Aside from speeding up the process and maybe eliminating some of the extra layers needed to approve acquisitions, Drabkin said Ellen Lord, undersecretary of Defense for acquisition and sustainment, and her team could start with a few quick fixes.

Commercial items, task orders

Unlike many competitors, DoD has regulations in place that often make it difficult to immediately test new capabilities, with limited exceptions. The Section 809 panel looked at what the Special Operations Command was doing, as they found a way to identify new things and immediately get them to their operators to employ.

As of now, it’s not a feasible option across the whole system and DoD. A potential solution is if, when buying commercial items, DoD used the simplified acquisition procedures authorized in the Federal Acquisition Regulation. Drabkin said the department currently uses FAR Part 15 formal source selections — which generally results in a 12- to 18-month wait.

“Under the simplified acquisition, procedures already authorized by law and in the regulation, they could do it in a matter of weeks. Certainly, no longer than months,” Drabkin said.

The panel also looked into the difficulty the department had when awarding and taking delivery orders. DoD uses Part 15 regulations to issue these orders as well, adding extra time to the process, and little evidence of its value.

Instead, they should be using fair opportunity procedures, Drabkin said. These procedures, according to the General Services Administration, are:

  • The process should be planned, fair and consistent.
  • The total cost should be considered over the full life of the delivery or task order.
  • Full and complete documentation is vitally important and must be able to withstand the
    scrutiny of an audit.

This would save time and money for the department, he said.

Enhanced debriefings, industry interaction

Debriefings are essential to government contracts because they explain in detail to a contractor why they were not chosen. The information, according to the Defense Authorization University, includes the government’s evaluation of weaknesses or deficiencies in a contractors proposal, an explanation of the evaluation process, an assessment of their proposal and the rationale for their exclusion from the competition.

“Everybody talks about how debriefings are a good thing. But their actual implementation by the department we found it’s spotty, and it’s not pervasive,” Drabkin said. “Enhanced debriefings provide information to industry about how they can do better next time. And we think there’s a correlation between enhanced debriefings and fewer protests.”

Drabkin said the department would also have better luck if it interacted with the industry more.

While there are limitations on that interaction, primarily after a request-for-proposal (RFP) is issued and those proposals are returned to government, it’s not against the law for DoD to have a discussion with the contractor first.

“They could today improve that by making people talk to industry, by collection through that process intelligence on what industry has to offer, not only for the current procurement, but in terms of future procurements as well,” he said. “It’s something that we found is woefully missing and doesn’t require congressional action.”

Security clearances

Another thing DoD could do is reduce the number of security clearances required per service contract.

In many cases, everyone involved in a defense contract has to be cleared first, which can take months. Drabkin said a lot of these defense contracts have no dealings with classified information.

“It costs money. It takes time. I mean, it costs a private sector company over $25,000 to get a single security clearance,” he said. “And it takes months, which makes it difficult for you to deliver where there is no real need for security clearance and that all begins the requirements process, which Ms. Lord could impact in the contacting process.”

Drabkin said the 98 recommendations have been given to Congress and they will see if they’re implemented quickly in the FAR, or in later defense authorization.

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