Op-ed | Federal agencies must modernize to be competitive and effective

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This commentary appeared in the July 17, 2017 issue of SpaceNews Magazine.

As the Trump administration continues to review federal spending and implements good-government policies in Washington, it should take into consideration America’s outdated acquisition policies and procedures at the Pentagon and NASA.

Modern manufacturing and production is becoming increasingly complex, especially within highly regulated industries such as aerospace and defense. Ensuring quality in these industries can mean the difference between life and death. Quality and mission assurances are significant components of the hundred million dollar legacy launch cost of NASA. This spring, NASA’s Inspector General (IG) revealed that America’s space agency lost more than $1 billion over the past decade due to components that failed to meet performance expectation or quality standards. Moreover, NASA is not the only organization that falls prey to a continuing escalation of complexity with a growing risk of failure. We need to look no further than current programs for multipurpose aircraft to support the Air Force and Navy. The lack of appropriate oversight, reporting, and corrective actions continues to cost taxpayers millions of dollars, delaying strategic defense initiatives in the process.

In order to reduce costs, rather than looking for things to avoid in the future, companies, especially those with government contracts, should instead turn to a solution that will automate the critical and necessary quality and mission assurance tasks. An electronic quality management system (QMS), which has been designed specifically to support defense contractors and their supply chain partners, allows for the integration of quality and manufacturing data with a seamless interface to a company’s enterprise resource planning solution.

A modern QMS can provide many benefits to an organization. The ability to track the entire product lifecycle in real-time, including the documentation of a component’s condition, history and genealogy ensures improved quality and lowers production costs. With a complete online product history, that information is immediately available to the Department of Defense (DoD), as well as auditors. The information they request is available in minutes, rather than days.

However, the uses of electronic QMSs are not widely adopted throughout government supply chains and inconsistent federal policies on the matter are not helping. A 2014 Pentagon IG report found that DoD has not established an overarching quality management policy to ensure the consistent application of QMS requirements across the military, nor does it have an effective feedback mechanism in place to evaluate the performance of quality management systems. As a result, the IG recommends the Pentagon emphasize the importance of a robust quality management program throughout the entire acquisition life cycle, and establish standardized reporting requirements for quality assurance metrics throughout the Defense Department.

Congress and the Executive branch both agree that government acquisition programs are ripe for modernization and improvement. This shared view is reflected in the increasing size of our acquisition workforce – especially at the Pentagon – and the fact Members of Congress inserted more than 10 provisions specifically targeting the acquisition workforce in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

One such provision, which was included in last year’s NDAA conference report, encouraged the Defense Contract Audit Agency (DCAA), which is responsible for conducting Defense contract audits, to examine the potential for electronic quality management systems to improve the ability of DCAA to conduct thorough and timely audits. This is a step in the right direction to ensure potential production mishaps are identified and remedied before they develop into severe problems resulting in increased costs and missed deadlines.

Managing the supply chain and generating the associated data is not a simple operation. Complex manufacturing involves supply chains comprised of multiple levels. Airplanes alone are made from hundreds of thousands of parts from thousands of supplies – domestic and international. Having the ability to hold all suppliers accountable and the capacity to score the supplier in a real and meaningful way is critical to driving higher quality across the DoD, NASA, and other strategic initiatives supported by tax dollars.

Moving forward, the government should continue to examine the potential use of electronic quality management systems within its own agencies, and encourage its private sector contractors to follow suit.

U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.) chaired the House Science Committee from 1997–2001.