The New (Not for the Better) Culture of Defense Acquisition

This post, written by David Wyld, originally appeared on Public Spend Forum

Sometimes, the rules change literally in the middle of the game, and you have no choice but to adapt. Take the new emphasis on player safety in the National Football League. Just a short time ago, when a defensive back would deliver a crushing blow to the head of a wide receiver, that play would be replayed over and over again as a highlight, maybe not just for that game, but for his team’s season. Today, that same hit will almost certainly draw not just a 15-yard penalty, but a hefty fine from Commissioner Roger Goodell. And so today, defensive players in the NFL are having to “relearn” how to tackle their opponents in a “safer” manner, and in many cases, having to “unlearn” what they were taught since their pee-wee football days to play and survive in a new era of football.

In a recent article for FCW, covering the recent fall conference of the Coalition for Government Procurement, Frank Kendall, the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, observed that: “It’s not the best of times. We don’t know when this will end, lurching from budget crisis to budget crisis.” He added that the Department of Defense (DoD) is operating at present “in damage limitation mode.”

At that same conference, the director of contracting for the Air Force, Major General Wendy Masiello, reported that she has lost thirty contracting officers over the last two years, most of whom left federal employment “in the wake of furloughs, the shutdown and uncertain budgets.” Moreover, those lost personnel left an institutional knowledge gap, as they represented “700 years of collective contracting experience that can’t be immediately replaced.” She reported that the Air Force is taking steps to help make sure that all staff members in its acquisition workforce understand the “new normal” environment in defense contracting. The Air Force is even taking the step of bringing in field contracting officers from its far-flung facilities to be exposed to the current conditions its headquarters acquisition staff is coping with in the wake of the budget and personnel cuts.

And so, in an era where the government has been shutdown and federal employees’ work and personal lives have been disrupted, when budgeting is conducted by continuing resolutions and reduced by sequestration, there is an acknowledgment across all agencies – even in the DoD – that there is indeed a “new normal.” In an era of “doing more with less,” the rules are indeed fast-changing, both for how acquisition should be carried-out and for the relationship of contracting personnel to the agency and to the government as a whole.

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