Posted inOpinion

OpEd: The More Things Change…

Back in the mid 1990 s, I had an opportunity to discuss acquisition reform with one of the individuals who was responsible for the drafting and promulgation of the Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act (FASA) of 1994. A college friend of mine was associated with one of the Senate staffers who had drafted the FASA.

The staffer wanted to find out from me whether the law had given relief to those of us at the place where the “rubber meets the road” in the acquisition of major weapon systems by the Department of Defense.

I was a contracting officer for the Ballistic Missile Office (BMO) and had the responsibility for contracting for the development and production of the Peacekeeper propulsion and guidance systems by the U.S. Air Force. The Senate staffer had met with senior leaders from the Pentagon acquisition community and was assured that the upcoming changes in the law would dramatically impact the contracting process. He asked me to lunch to discuss my perspective on the changes.

At the time, I told him that there were two things that could radically simplify my job. First, change the personnel system to allow me to reward high performers and get rid of non-productive ones. I had found that one of my most difficult tasks was ensuring that those who did the most work receive pay and promotion in return for their productivity.

The BMO had any number of outstanding professionals and was regarded as a true “Center of Excellence” in the acquisition of major weapon systems (i.e. ICBM s). But even in that office , I recognized the need to reward and promote individuals based upon more than just longevity or seniority.

The staffer assured me there was a provision for ensuring pay for productivity in the legislation. He cited Title V — Acquisition Management Section 5001 Performance Based Management “2220. Performance based management: acquisition programs.”

This law required the Secretary of Defense within one year of enactment of the Act to provide an enhanced system of incentives to facilitate the achievement of goals relating pay to performance. The law said we were going to have a system that would allow me to reward my top performers. It also said these top performers would be able to receive consideration for promotions and appraisals based on their contribution toward achieving system goals. I was going to have a way to get my best people rewarded and promoted.

This has never happened. I am still waiting for this portion of the law to be implemented. There have been several attempts to comply with the law, but none have been successful to date.

First the Pentagon in the late 1990s tried the Acquisition Demonstration project, a system that would allow managers and supervisors to reward based upon productivity within pay bands for performance over the appraisal period. This was never fully implemented, due in no small part to resistance from the government unions suspicious of favoritism and distrustful of putting such power in the hands of people who had not demonstrated they could be entrusted with such discretionary authority.

Next came the National Security Personnel System (NSPS), a personnel system that was instituted in the Department of Homeland Security during the period in which Congress was attempting to be apolitical in the wake of 9/11. This appears to be headed for many of the same problems that were experienced by the Acquisition Demonstration project (although the jury is still out on this project).

The second critical issue I mentioned to the staffer was the need to revise the fiscal law requirements that often create havoc on acquisition professionals. I was fairly new to acquisition and the laws concerning the use of appropriated funds were inconsistent, arbitrary and often quite punitive , even to inadvertent mistakes.

The staffer said these initiatives had not been requested by the senior Pentagon leadership when they were called to testify before Congress. This concerned me since I believed that they were critical elements to making my job more effective. I explained that a substantial percentage of my time went into determining the correct use of money, the right year, the right color and the right amount.

The Anti-Deficiency Act was always looming over the head of contracting officers. It was crucial in almost every decision that we made in acquisition planning and execution of the development and production of space systems.

Many people are unaware of the time and effort that goes into the fiscal law considerations associated with weapon systems acquisition. A program might have a significant amount of research and development funding, but these funds cannot be used for production effort. Operations and maintenance funds cannot be used for production effort, but sometimes there is a gray area that might allow funds normally set aside for production to be used for efforts that are sometimes operations- and maintenance-related .

It is this ambiguous area that causes much time and effort to be invested in the process. We have help from the usual suspects (Air Force Audit, DoD Defense Department Inspector General Audit, General Accountability Office Audit etc.) to keep us honest, even when they might disagree as to what “honest” really means.

The staffer asked why I thought this had not been requested by senior Pentagon leaders. I told him that I thought it was one of two reasons:

First, they might not have believed Congress would consider such a drastic course of action. Such a change would very likely reduce Congress’ power to dole out funding and control which programs are acquired by the services.

S econd, they might have been afraid that Congress might actually take such a radical course of action. If Congress did, then these Defense Department acquisition leaders could no longer claim they were hamstrung by Congress’ unwillingness to give them the necessary funds to complete the acquisition of major systems.

In any event, no changes of substance were implemented to assist the contracting officers where “the rubber meets the road” in either of these areas.

Now it is 2006 and we have many, if not all of the same problems that we had during the ’70 s and ’80 s with regard to the acquisition of major weapon systems. If you were to ask a contracting officer today what his/her challenges are, they would most likely rank the lack of qualified resources (acquisition work force) as their top complaint. B ut a close second would be the personnel and fiscal law issues that I discussed back in the ’90 s.

This is not a surprise. If you research the results of major studies in the acquisition of weapon systems, you will find a consistency of issues, as well as solutions. The answers are out there after all. To quote Al Pacino in the movie “The Scent of a Woman”: “I always knew the right path to take but almost never did. Why? Because in most cases it was just too damn hard.”

Well, perhaps it is just too damn hard to take the right path and attempt to implement these solutions. Instead, it is easier to fiddle around the edges, making less substantive, less effective changes to regulations and guides.

My concern is that in 20 years, when they ask the next generation of acquisition professionals what they would change if given the opportunity, they will respond with the same concerns and recommendations, only to have them fall on deaf ears once again.

James Gill is a graduate of the University of Southern California’s Defense & Strategic Studies Program, a former professor in the CSSB National Security Studies Program and is currently employed at the Space and Missile Systems Center, Los Angeles Air Force Base. These views are solely those of the author and do not represent those of the U.S. Air Force.