People at Center of Defense Acquisition Process, Official Says
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 4, 2013 People are at the core of the Defense Department’s Better Buying Power 2.0 acquisition program, the assistant secretary of defense for acquisition said in a recent interview.
“Our people want, and the department needs, a professionalized workforce with the tools and training needed to be successful,” Katrina McFarland said.
Much has changed since the department introduced the original version of the program in 2011. At that time, the department was ending a decade-long run of significant budget increases, the war in Iraq was winding down, and DOD was facing downsizing. Then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates announced a $450 billion cut in spending over 10 years.
The acquisition philosophy was to spend and allocate money. “The job was to get things to the warfighter as quickly as we could,” McFarland said. Better Buying Power anticipated the end of that era. Now, DOD is downsizing, but “not really leaving war per se,” she said.
The acquisition career field was decimated in the 1990s, and the “spend” culture of the post-9/11 era did not help the workforce learn. “Now we have to rebuild the force while at the same time getting more out of the dollars available to us to spend,” McFarland said.
Better Buying Power seeks to refocus the workforce and to change the culture that has been embedded since the 1990s. “We’ve got to get to the training, we’ve got to get to the skills, we’ve got to get to how we manage our people,” the assistant secretary said.
She talked about her experience “growing up” in the Marine Corps acquisition community. “For every step I took, there was somebody there with me to help me to understand, to learn and to tell me how I could have done things better,” she said. “[It was] the best type of leadership I could possibly ask for. I thought that was the way everybody was trained.”
She soon learned that was not the case, she said -- not because people didn’t want to mentor new people, but because it was taken out of their job descriptions.
The department lost critical acquisition competencies and skills “that we cannot regrow overnight,” she said. Acquisition officials “decided that people could come off the street and be leaders and supervisors.”
Acquisition supervisors, as part of their duties, were supposed to help to nurture and train new people. But that function was eliminated “as a savings construct,” McFarland said. The assistant secretary likened this to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. “We really hurt ourselves,” she said. “They closed the feeder path for the senior skills.”
She said the Defense Contract Management Agency was downsized “horrendously” from 26,000 people to fewer than 10,000. Much of the reduction, she said, eliminated contractor oversight positions. “They were the folks who monitor, who sit at the contracting site and make sure the public gets the value for the dollars,” she added.
Defense industries still deliver a superb product to the force, McFarland said, noting that the American military is the best-equipped force in the world. “But we lost sense of ourselves as a customer,” she said. “Our expertise at being a good customer waned. We couldn’t tell what was ‘good enough’ anymore. We lost a lot of the expertise that managed to get better value for the dollar.”
Better Buying Power 1.0 started the change, she said. “We want people to understand we are not in agreement with the construct that they can’t do this business, that they are somehow inferior and unable to deliver materials, on time, on cost, on schedule,” McFarland said. “Rather, there is a huge effort out there to help them get those tools.”
One of the drumbeats of the program is to shape the acquisition workforce into a professional, respected corps, she said.
Acquisition is a team sport, McFarland said, with engineers, logisticians, budget and finance experts, specialists in international programs, information technology leaders and testers needing to cooperate.
But teams need leaders. “We get a lot of ‘help.’ Some of it well-intended, but a lot of this help misses,” she said. “There is no checklist mentality that can succeed here. There has to be people with intellect to know what risks to take and not to take, and that requires learned people to work with those junior [personnel] to introduce them to the process and give them the room for failure.”
Each acquisition is different and poses different challenges, she said. Each program is unique, and requires leaders to consult a list, but not be bound by it -- “someone to take into account the risks,” McFarland said.
She noted that getting a driver’s license requires passing a written test and receiving driving instruction from an older, experienced operator. “In acquisition, we throw them the keys to a Maserati and tell them to tool around on [Interstate] 95,” she said.
At its core, Better Buying Power seeks to help acquisition personnel think, McFarland said. “This isn’t ‘Thou shalt do this,’” she added. “It’s ‘These are ideas that you need to consider as you engage in your daily business.”