Critics: DoD IT acquisition report lacks new thinking

Monday - 1/3/2011, 2:09pm EST

Jared Serbu, Reporter, Federal News Radio

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By Jared Serbu
Reporter
Federal News Radio

A Congressionally-mandated report outlining a new approach for delivering information technology in the Defense Department contains good recommendations, but fails to look outside the Defense industrial base's traditional methodologies, according to two industry experts.

The IT Acquisition Advisory Council (IT-AAC), led by former Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne, set out to provide the department with a template for developing effective processes for keeping up with rapid developments in the commercial IT world.

Kevin Caroll and John Weiler, two of the panel's vice chairmen, told Federal News Radio in an interview that they viewed the final DoD product as having some good recommendations, but it lacked new ideas to transform a Pentagon acquisition culture that is deeply infused with traditional acquisition methods designed for weapons systems.

"A lot of it is history and a lot of the ideas are regenerated ideas," said Carroll, a former Army Program Executive Officer for Enterprise Information Systems and an IT-AAC vice chairman. "Certainly the IT acquisition process [is] different and should be handled differently outside of the weapons systems stuff -- all those kinds of things have been around forever. In DoD when I started off, when I was young, I started working for an organization that recognized that and did procurement differently than the way the process works today, knowing that acquiring IT was a specialty and required different kinds of business people. So in a way, it's not great ideas; it's recycled ideas, but ones that are well needed."

The DoD report repeatedly acknowledged that IT acquisition is a different animal than traditional weapons system purchasing. Its authors wrote that IT projects in the future will "be executed in a time-boxed manner to closely match the commercial IT development cycle and deliver capability to the department."

Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn outlined the objective in a May speech, prior to the report's completion.

"On average it takes the department 81 months from when an IT program is first funded to when it becomes operational," Lynn said. "By comparison, the iPhone was developed in 24 months. That is less time than it would take us to prepare and defend a budget and receive a congressional appropriation for the program. Apple gets an iPhone and we get a budget. It's not an acceptable tradeoff."

Yet the IT-AAC roadmap's authors remained skeptical that DoD could successfully transition to a new acquisition process. Weiler, another vice chairman, said there have been repeated attempts to do so over more than a decade, and none had borne much fruit.

"If you go back over the past 16 years since the Clinger-Cohen Act was signed, there have been periodic attempts to take this on, yet the cultural resistance was fairly mighty," he said. "And sometimes it wasn't even a cultural resistance. It was that the department continued to go to the same old resources and expertise to fix this, and they didn't know what a good system or a good process would look like. So you had the guys who controlled the farms and the horse ranches being asked to design a car, and they've never seen a car - all they've ever seen is horses. So you end up with minor variations on a 1950s-1960s approach for buying weapons systems."

Weiler said that the reliance on "old resources" continued in DoD's new report, pointing to the fact that it failed to even mention a transition to cloud computing - a central focus of the 25-point IT transformation plan released at about the same time by federal CIO Vivek Kundra.

"The reason is that Vivek and his team openly and actively engaged alternative thinking," Weiler said. "DoD's report stayed within the Defense industrial complex and their close-knit network of FFRDCs [Federally Funded Research and Development Corporations]. The FFRDCs helped write this report, and their knowledge and experience is limited to the Defense community, so therefore new ideas like this didn't make it in. The dialogue wasn't there, the interaction wasn't sufficiently there. I think it reflects how difficult change can be in an establishment like the defense industrial complex. The barriers are still present to change."

Carroll agreed that the authors of the report did not consider many new ideas, but said it would be a mistake to conclude there are no advocates for change within DoD.

"I'd say there are certain people within the department who like the old way of doing stuff, and they're the ones who kind of want to make sure their bosses never get in trouble," he said. "They don't want to lose power, they want to protect people. And they're kind of interested in the way the weapons system stuff gets done and they like it and they're used to it and they're bureaucratic people, not business people. But there's always been a segment within the department of people that really wanted to do it like a business, wanted to do it more commercial, all those good things. So in a way, there's people who are kicking and screaming and there's some who are cheering."