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Thursday, July 30, 2015

Assessing need assement

The procurement regimes generally prefer that government only gets what it needs, not simply what it wants. It is curious that there is not much guidance in assessing the "need". 

See, for instance, the recent bus controversy in Sierra Leone, mentioned in this post a few weeks back. It appears from the reporting that Sierra Leone spent millions of dollars to acquire a fleet of buses that simply can't get down the roads they are meant to travel. The need was for better roads, not bigger buses, but they only considered the buses as the need. 

They didn't assess their needs assessment. They didn't prioritize their needs, either in the sense of which is more important for the public good or in the sense of which need should satisfied as a prerequisite to another.

Case in point: The Federal Acquisition Regulations have a whole Part devoted "Agency Needs". But, it starts from the assumption the need itself has already been assessed as the best of all alternatives: the emphasis is only on describing the need in a manner to yield a good specification.
11.000 Scope of part.

This part prescribes policies and procedures for describing agency needs.
To some extent, this thought was evoked by the following articles (read more at the links).

Reform Defense acquisition to reflect cyber age
There is currently a communication gap that leads to a guessing game in which companies devote millions of dollars to develop products the DoD does not actually need and then — in an attempt to avoid losses — devotes enormous efforts to convincing the DoD it should purchase them anyway. Everyone would benefit from a more rigorous Internal Research and Development (IRAD) investment process that allows the defense contractors to better understand their customer — the DoD — so they can provide the best possible product in a timely manner. Not only could millions of dollars be saved, better and broader communication about the DoD’s forecasted cyber requirements would reduce the need for lobbying and insider information.

Defense procurements are intended to provide the necessary tools for the military to execute its mission of defending freedom in the real and virtual world. But before these tools can be placed in the hands of the end user, the defense department must lead a multiyear procurement process. The process typically involves three key elements: requirements development, industry engagement in a series of sterile forums, and an appropriation by Congress allowing a request for proposal (RFP) to go forward.

While it historically led to modest success for standard vehicles or floating platforms, this process is unfit for the digital age. This is because the morphing of cyber attacks and the evolution of the technology used to prevent them far outpace the procurement process’ creep. As the purchase cycle plods on, the product being acquired becomes obsolete, and modifications must be inserted into the products requirement. Modifying the product can delay the process by months and sometimes even years. If the RFP does not pass muster, a mid stream requirement change will be issued, setting a program back. While the beefed up review and approval process is undoubtedly important, it is also time consuming.

One silver lining is the recently announced Better Buying Power 3.0. With Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics Frank Kendall at the helm, DoD plans to realign Internal Research and Development (IRAD) spending. The proposed realignment calls for DoD to take on a gatekeeper role over IRAD spending, with an eye towards increasing and improving engagement between the Department and defense contractors regarding the DoD’s upcoming needs.

Comprehensive cyber reform is a complicated problem for which there is no silver bullet. However, finding ways for the procurement process to keep pace with ever evolving threats and technology and to be welcoming to non-traditional players is an essential piece in the complicated puzzle of protecting America from cyber threats. The reform of Better Buying Power provides an opportunity to increase DoD’s engagement with small, innovative companies. Silicon Valley executives already serve as trusted advisors on the digital warfront, but their expertise could also be harnessed to develop products and systems for the government. Under Secretary Kendall should use the realignment process to pull Silicon Valley’s finest into the procurement fold, assuring they are informed of DoD’s future requirements and that Department personnel are available to serve as envoys to tech companies as they navigate the complexities of the procurement process and the inner workings of DoD.
Making Defense Reform Sane Again: Planning, Programming, Budgeting, and Execution
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has repeatedly called for reforms to the Pentagon’s ineffective acquisition system, and rightly so. Yet the troubled acquisition process is only one aspect of a larger departmental failure to align strategy with resources. To truly reform the Pentagon, Secretary Carter should take steps to narrow the gap between the theory and practice of the process designed to develop the future force: the Planning, Programming, Budgeting, and Execution (PPBE) system.

The PPBE process suffers from three discrepancies between how it functions in theory and in practice: an unrealistic timeline, a stove-piped analytic system, and a reliance on Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding.

On paper, PPBE is presented as four distinct stages that progress sequentially: planning outlines the future security environment; programming proposes programs for investment; budgeting develops a detailed budget according to fiscal guidance; and execution ensures compliance throughout the process. Yet, in practice, all of these ostensibly distinct stages overlap.

To map out the future security environment and determine which roles and missions should be prioritized, the Pentagon requires scenarios and modeling. Yet instead of maintaining a common baseline and robust joint analytic community, the relevant actors within the Pentagon lack a shared grasp of necessary assumptions, constraints, and objectives. At present, each actor defines a future security environment that suits its particular interests. The military services are particularly guilty of this myopia, maintaining independent analysis centers that are much larger and better equipped than those of the Joint Staff. This bureaucratic arrangement undermines the central oversight necessary for scenario development.

Five steps can fix these problems and bring resources back in line with strategy. First, to reduce the workload demanded by the current annual PPBE timeline, the department should receive appropriations and authorizations for two-year periods instead of the current annual arrangement. Two-year budgets could undergo a second round of amendments after the first year to assuage congressional concerns about allocating an additional year of funding. Congress could thereby maintain a reassuring level of control over the process while enabling the flexibility the Pentagon requires.

Second, to encourage prioritization of the planning guidance, the secretary of defense should label roles and missions for the military as critical, high-risk, low-risk, or optional. In a time of fiscal austerity, prioritizing is a particularly important initiative in making the best use of scarce time and resources.

Third, to address the lack of analytical centralization and coordination, the next administration should appoint and empower a director of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) with a strong vision of the organization’s role. This would ensure that CAPE maintains the resources and staff necessary to help the services integrate their activities. Moreover, the director of CAPE should work more closely with the Joint Staff’s Force Structure, Resource, and Assessment directorate to prioritize joint scenario development.

Fourth, the Pentagon must lessen its reliance on OCO funding. Current incentives preclude the services from doing so because programs and operations can all too easily be labeled as “war-time funding,” bypassing the closer scrutiny of normal budgetary channels.

Fifth, to promote a greater understanding of the process, defense leaders across the Pentagon should increase educational opportunities related to PPBE at the working level. To help defense personnel think more strategically and serve as better stewards of taxpayer dollars, the secretary of defense should make a PPBE familiarization course mandatory for all headquarters personnel. Doing so would help to introduce more individuals to this critical discussion and spur a new conversation regarding the disconnect between defense priorities and resources.

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