DoD stands up ‘SWAT team’ to help speed software acquisition

Adoption of DoD's new software acquisition pathway has been slow, but officials are looking for ways to jumpstart its use.

It’s been four years since the Defense Department created six new acquisition pathways — including one specifically intended to speed up software acquisition. But as often happens with policy reforms, implementation is off to a slow start, so officials are building a cadre of software experts at the Pentagon to help speed up adoption.

DoD created the software acquisition pathway as part of a broader overhaul to make its acquisition system more “adaptive” to the particular products or services the department buys. The software pathway in particular came out of a recognition that most of DoD’s traditional approaches were geared toward large weapons systems. It’s designed to encourage rapid development and close coordination with users, and also eliminates some steps of the traditional acquisition process that don’t make sense for software.

Cara Abercrombie, the assistant secretary of Defense for acquisition, said she has heard positive feedback from program managers throughout the military services, but they don’t always feel empowered to use the new pathway.

“They love it. They want to use it more expansively,” she said Thursday at the Naval Postgraduate School’s annual acquisition research symposium in Monterey, California. “But my sense is there’s a little bit of risk aversion in the system, a little bit of worry, because it moves fast, it doesn’t have to check all the same boxes as the other acquisition pathways. And I do think there can often be reluctance to use it.”

Only about 50 programs using software acquisition pathway so far

According to the Government Accountability Office, there are only about 50 programs across DoD using the software pathway. In a report last summer, GAO also found that software-intensive programs that aren’t using the software pathway don’t tend to use modern, agile development methodologies.

But Abercrombie said DoD is looking to drive wider adoption, and is establishing a specialized cadre of software experts within her office.

“It will be a team of experts who know how to use the software pathway, who know how to do agile acquisition strategies,” she said. “We’re going to make sure they are more or less a SWAT team, if you will, that can parachute into program offices to provide deskside support, to help walk program office teams through how to get the software pathway going effectively. We also need to do some forensics as to understanding why there hasn’t been wider adoption, but I suspect some of it is that it’s so different from what we’ve done before.”

Congress mandated the standup of that new software cadre in the 2022 Defense authorization bill. Lawmakers also ordered DoD to create a dedicated software specialist career path to help develop that group of experts, and to develop military members with technical skills into software experts.

Military services also pursuing changes

Meanwhile, the military services are doing work of their own to get more out of the software pathway. In March, the Army, for example, issued policies that told the acquisition workforce to “maximize” their use of the software pathway and move to industry best practices for software development.

In an April interview with Federal News Network, Margaret Boatner, the deputy assistant secretary of the Army for strategy and acquisition reform, said the service has only used the pathway for 11 programs so far, but officials have seen clear benefits.

“There’s a lot less documentation and review requirements to start a program on the software pathway. But even more importantly, it actually requires us to use modern software practices. It’s not an option; we have to use agile, lean DevSecOps, continuous integration and continuous delivery, those types of things,” she said. “Traditionally when you look at our software systems, we released capability drops every three to four years. We have programs now that are operating on the software pathway that are delivering every 12 months, every nine months, and striving to deliver capability every six months. Sure, that’s not quite as quickly as industry, but it’s absolutely progress.”

A separate challenge: funding software

But even if the pathway helps solve some of DoD’s acquisition process problems, it doesn’t do much to fix the way Congress and the department fund software development.

As of now, program managers have to run through complex legal hurdles to determine whether specific aspects of their programs need to be funded from procurement, R&D or operations and maintenance accounts. Congress has authorized a pilot program that lets officials fund software with just a single color of money — and program managers love that approach too — but lawmakers have only authorized six programs for the pilot so far.

In its final report in March, the congressional commission on Planning, Programming, Budgeting and Execution Reform said Congress needs to expand the single color of money idea to all DoD software programs.

“I’ve had to be on reprogramming actions where you’re changing money between appropriations just because of the way [an aspect of a software program] has been defined,” Elizabeth Bieri, the commission’s director of research and a former DoD financial management official, told the NPS symposium Thursday. “Well, it’s really not that different. I think back to the years when you had to use procurement to buy all your IT equipment, and now it’s just regular O&M money. This would be just kind of the continuation of how people work things today, and the continuation of the evolution of software. If I’m changing code because of a bug fix, how is that any different than incorporating something for new interoperability features? I think if you combine all of these things, you’ll have the ability to make the changes that are required when needed without an arbitrary seam.”

 

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