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February 6, 2016

What the Pentagon Might Recommend to Congress on Acquisition Overhaul Next Year

Congress is going to look very closely as soon as next year’s defense policy bill at overhauling how the Defense Department spends its massive budget on hardware and services. On Tuesday, the department official tasked with generating recommendations for Capitol Hill hinted at what the Pentagon does and does not want.

Likely in: bolstering the acquisition workforce, streamlining the current system. Likely out: a totally rewritten set of rules, separate rules governing purchases of information technology.

Andrew Hunter, executive secretary of the Warfighter Senior Integration Group and director of the Joint Rapid Acquisition Cell, said during a panel discussion hosted by the Brookings Institution that the department isn’t expected to make recommendations until next year. House Armed Services Vice Chairman William M. “Mac” Thornberry, the Texas Republican leading the effort and the favorite to take the full committee’s gavel next year, has said the overhaul would be a “several years” process.

Hunter said the top thing Congress could do would be to permanently get rid of sequestration, the mandated across-the-board cuts put in place in 2011, but added that he realized that was a “pie in the sky” hope. But beyond that, he said Congress should maintain the Defense Acquisition Workforce Development Fund, created to answer the cutbacks of the 1990s and since used to improve the training of defense acquisition personnel.

Although the subject of the Brookings discussion was primarily about how the Defense Department can keep paces with rapid changes in information technology, Hunter rejected the idea that there should be a separate set of rules for purchasing IT, given existing statutes that have become ossified over time.

“If we create a separate system for any individual commodity or product, say IT for example, we run the risk that we create a separate new, rigid and inflexible system,” he said. “We need to have that flexibility to cover the entire set of equipment, goods and services the department needs to buy.”

And overall, Hunter said, “An entirely brand new set of rules or a slew of new rules would be unhelpful. We really do think streamlining the rule set and  flexibility and tailoring is the way to go.”

Other changes being looked at, Hunter said, include cutting down from four potentially applicable acquisition oversight systems to one, addressing the burden of checklists that must be met at certain milestones in a program’s acquisition process and eliminating certain rigid statutory requirements that create a “presumption of error or almost bad faith” on the part of the department.

Jon Etherton, senior fellow at the National Defense Industrial Association, said it might not necessarily be the case that legislation is the best answer for what ails Pentagon acquisition, and Hunter outlined several initiatives the department has taken up on its own to improve acquisition. Tom Sisti, senior director and chief legislative counsel for SAP America, noted that many of the same acquisition problems that exist today — like the need for a trained workforce and smart business processes — seem to come up again and again.

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