Column: Acquisition workforce strategy is the answer to DoD’s problems

Arnold Punaro on "In Depth" with Francis Rose

wfedstaff |

By Maj. Gen. (ret.) Arnold Punaro
CEO of The Punaro Group

In December 2011, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) gave a landmark speech on the chamber’s floor detailing the problems with what he called the “military- industrial-congressional complex.”

The problems with the Defense Department’s massive and expensive acquisition system are numerous, but stem from two major problems — stovepipes and bureaucracy.

The multi-layered, uncoordinated acquisition system that purchases more than $400 billion a year in goods, equipment and supplies is governed by more than 4,000 pages of regulations. The DoD requirements, acquisition and budget process cost more, take longer, get less and often times not what the troops need.

In April 2011, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright asked me to lead a task force of the Defense Business Board to make recommendations on improving these unacceptable results.

We took more than a year and reviewed more than 300 studies, commissions and inquiries on the Defense acquisition system that have been conducted in the last 25 years. Our task force examined the common threads that linked these studies and interviewed more than 220 people, from former secretaries of Defense to program managers to industry experts. The refrain we heard time and time again was, “We know what’s broken and the necessary fixes, but how do we change the outcomes?”

Eight recommendations to fix DoD acquisition

We issued eight findings and corresponding recommendations, all of which have been well received by the full Defense Business Board, the Joint Chiefs, and DoD senior leadership.

Of the eight findings, three of them concern the acquisition workforce, a large group of dedicated public servants who work diligently, but ultimately struggle within a broken system that is focused on avoiding mistakes rather than producing more, in less time, at less cost.

Our task force found that the skills of the acquisition work force, as a whole, have atrophied and that DoD needs to significantly reinvest in human capital. This reinvestment should be directed at three specific problems:

First, the military acquisition workforce, through no fault of their own, has become detached from the operating forces and lacks key perspective and experience. Second, acquisition workforce management practices, in part causing the aforementioned problem, also contribute to military members being put at a disadvantage with their peers in the operating forces. Third, the department lacks sufficient systems engineering capability that is necessary for inherently governmental functions necessary for timely decisions and tradeoff relative to technical feasibility and cost.

DoD recognizes the need to reinvest in human capital, improving the quality and training of the workforce. One of the major problems is that acquisition personnel do not have an appropriate understanding of operational needs. The acquisition system is so complex that its specialists usually work exclusively within that field. Mid-career military officers attend schools that train them to become acquisition specialists and once they gain the additional occupational training, they stay within the acquisition system for the remainder of their careers. Civilian employees in acquisition do not have sufficient access to the education and assignments that would prepare them for increased responsibilities.

Civilians dominate the acquisition workforce

Acquisition personnel have not been served well by existing management practices, particularly the military members. Civilians dominate the acquisition workforce, unlike the services or the combatant commands. There are 136,000 civilians and 16,000 military. The civilians manage uniformed members who work within the acquisition system, not the parent armed service. This puts military personnel at a disadvantage compared to their counterparts for career opportunities and promotions.

The current approach does not provide military officers with the requisite experience, skills, and qualifications needed for positions of increasing responsibility in the acquisition field. The Service Chiefs, in collaboration with senior acquisition leaders, should be accountable for the career path management, training, education and particularly promotions and equal promotion rates of military acquisition personnel.

The department also lacks the organic system engineering capability that is essential to the inherently governmental evaluation and decisions. The shortfall in system engineering hinders the department’s ability to assess technical, cost, schedule and viable alternatives.

DoD needs to establish a human capital strategy for developing qualified system engineers capable of effective oversight and decision-making, prioritize near term needs and reassign system engineers to meet them, and increase the quality and capability of military and civilian engineers in the acquisition process and increase the sharing of resources across commands.

The good news is that the department’s civilian and military leadership recognizes the shortfalls and is committed to implementing the required fixes.

Maj. Gen. (ret) Arnold Punaro is CEO of The Punaro Group. A member of the Defense Business Board, he recently completed leading a study on reforming defense acquisition. Punaro wrote this column as part of Federal News Radio’s week-long special report, Inside the World’s Biggest Buyer.