Commentary | March 27, 2017

The Defense Acquisition System: Its Impact on Workforce and Outcomes

By Katharina McFarland CTNSP

This is the first of a six-part series from the Center for Technology and National Security Policy.

The ”Defense Acquisition System” is legislation, policy, and process layered on top of practice. This article outlines how the current Defense Acquisition System impacts performance, cost, and speed. As priorities shift between the three imperatives, the acquisition workforce is expected to navigate the complex layers of legislation, policy, process and practice that govern Defense acquisition in its current state. Such adaptation requires training as well as hands-on experience guided by an ever-shrinking pool of seasoned workers, well-versed in successful practice. This article is the first of six related to the topic, as follows: 

  • Impact of those not trained 
  • Defense Acquisition Workforce Development Fund (DAWDF) 
  • Acquisition Workforce Qualification Initiative (AWQI) 
  • Complexity and priority-management 
  • Fact-based process change 

What is, and Why is, there a designated “Defense Acquisition Workforce”?

Private versus Public Acquisition: 

Private educational systems such as traditional Colleges and Universities train students in multiple disciplines to deliver products that are generally focused on successful economic outcomes for private industry. Although this training provides the entry level skills the workforce needs to support the federal government, it does not adequately address the mandate of government workers to protect the taxpayers, serve the public good and promote national security. Both public and private want successful outcomes, the difference is in who they report to: the taxpayer or the shareholder. 

Over the years, the Services and Agencies in the Department of Defense (DOD) developed various levels and approaches to train individuals to conduct acquisition as public servants. There were multiple training standards and policies across the DOD which resulted in cross-department challenges with industry and Congress. As a result, Congress assisted DOD by legislating that the acquisition workforce must be trained to a common standard. The Defense Acquisition Workforce Improvement Act, (DAWIA), required that all services and agencies that conduct acquisition or procurement identify their workforce and provide training. The Services and Agencies designated their respective acquisition billets. The Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, (USD AT&L) directed the Defense Acquisition University (DAU) to bring Service subject matter experts and industry partners together to create the learning objective Standards for the DOD acquisition workforce. 

Challenges of implementing a Common Standard for designation of Acquisition Personnel: 

As this was a new construct, none of the Services designated their acquisition billets to any established standard. The determination of who in the military and civilian workforce was, and more appropriately who wasn’t designated acquisition workforce, varied. This is an important nuance, as there were, and still are today many undesignated and therefore untrained individuals who perform elements of acquisition. As should be expected, not all Services perform equally in their execution of acquisition because of the various methodologies used in implementation. 

The Office of Secretary of Defense’s Human Capital Initiative (HCI) office with Service support has recently developed a common standard for designation of an acquisition professional. There is no method currently embraced by the full department to ensure all those requiring, resourcing or acquiring1 are trained to understand the full impacts of their actions/decisions on acquisition outcomes. It could be that not everyone should be trained to the entire acquisition curriculum. There is also a natural tendency to limit designation of public servant or military as acquisition professionals, because those people are required by law to obtain training which currently takes them out of the workplace or military operations without replacement. Perhaps more selective training could be provided. It must be recognized that the system then allows for individuals to have authority to direct acquisition outcomes that do not have the appropriate experience or training, and thus they contribute to failed outcomes. A subsequent article will address the issue of selective training based on acquisition needs. 

Training Costs typically do not get a High Priority in the Budget: 

As with most budgets, training costs do not typically get high priority, and in the recent past the limited numbers of trained personnel demonstrated this problem. Once again, Congress assisted and created the Defense Acquisition Workforce Development Fund (DAWDF). This fund is remarkable within the budget world. Congress worked with both Authorization and Appropriations committees to sustain training regardless. The funds are non-appropriated. That is, Congress allows DOD to use funds that are not executed at the end of a fiscal year to be utilized the following year. These funds do not have an appropriations “color.” They are not research and development, production, or sustainment funds. They also do not expire for 3 years after designation. Although frustrating to the comptroller community to manage, DAWDF has reaped rewards. Our data shows more people are getting training than have in prior years. A subsequent article will address DAWDF. 

How does Training relate to Practice and Good Outcomes? 

What is our Workforce’s level of Training and Experience: 

The DOD workforce is categorized predominantly in two areas when it comes to experience. The majority is limited in experience. The others, the experienced few, are very close to retirement. This is called ‘the bathtub effect’. An inexperienced workforce is risk -averse and obedient to process over product. There is continuous criticism of the workforce’s product in the press and in Congress. Constant change in policy when compounded with criticism creates a great cloud of uncertainty hovering over the workforce. They become risk-averse and process-driven to offset constant churn. 

Experience obtained under Supervision is a means to accelerate Confidence and Competence: 

Training alone does not provide for good outcomes in acquisition. It is necessary, but not sufficient. Training can give you the theoretical understanding, but only practice in a real world environment with experienced coaching can validate that the student has actually learned what was taught in class. Think of the medical profession and its progression from intern to resident doctor. A discussion on this topic led the Business Integration Group (BSIG) – a senior acquisition forum chaired by Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology & Logistics (UASD AT&L) with membership from the Service and Component Acquisition Executives (SAEs and CAEs) – to direct that an Acquisition Workforce Qualification Initiative (AWQI) be established. 

Under this initiative, trainee performance would be validated by those considered competent. There needed to be a common agreement on what would be the credentials of those considered competent. Also there needed to be common standards against which people would then be measured. These and other issues were addressed by a small group from the Services assisted by DAU and HCI. In 2016 the AWQI was released as a result of their efforts. Several entities and services began implementing. It will take several years for a system such as this to demonstrate success, but giving people an opportunity to get feedback on their performance under a structured system provides for confidence and unity in what is considered acceptable. A subsequent article will track the performance of the AWQI. 

What else is needed by our Acquisition Workforce to succeed? 

With limited experience, Complexity becomes the enemy of success: 

The complexity of the acquisition system was recently highlighted in a Congressional Hearing on Acquisition Reform when a representative from the Congressional Research Service put stack upon stack of legislation and policy on the hearing table to make a point. There are elements of legislation that are not geared towards good acquisition outcomes but rather “public good” (example: Specialty Metals), there are elements of legislation that edict singular use of procurement tools that do not fit across the wide spectrum of procurement activities. An example is the use of Firm Fixed Price contracts where there is a product never developed before and the knowledge of cost is limited. There are many instances of overly zealous implementation or interpretation of legislation by DOD that has resulted in additional bureaucracy and more layers of policy and process that do not focus on product. The language itself is difficult for the average reader to understand in these documents. 

We need a Better Business Deal as well as a good product: 

Since the onset of the global war on terror, the predominant business method was to spend and buy as quickly as possible to deliver to the warfighter. There was limited emphasis on the business deal. Over the period of 2001 thru 2010 the average cost overrun as reported by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) was 13% above the Independent Cost Estimate! Not only as a caretaker for the taxpayer, but also in facing a churning budget climate that included sequestration, USD AT&L directed the acquisition workforce to spend more time on the business deal in order to offset the budget climate. The BSIG provided the workforce with a set of “tools” to use where appropriate. These tools achieve better deals (called ‘Better Buying Power” initiatives). Information on the successes of this effort are available on the DAU website titled “Better Buying Power.” There are many cases showing how using better acquisition tools has delivered more innovation on time and at a reasonable price. 

But good Business Deals take Time and Experience: 

Although one would like to believe that improved business deals could be conducted more quickly, the experience of our acquisition workforce plays out. It takes longer to build a better business deal due to factors including greater research and dialog with industry. By their nature, complex procurements involve greater risk. The change implemented through Better Buying Power came very quickly and definitely resulted in successes, but also raised challenges in the Department, Congress, industry and warfighting community who expected their capabilities would be delivered just as quickly as they had in the past during the high budget years. There were billions of dollars in cost avoidance via Better Buying Power initiatives, but there were also frustrations over timelines which can be readily seen in the current NDAA climate. With time, the above efforts will reap benefits across the Department even larger than what has been realized to date. But we are not a patient society. 

The workforce is carrying the weight of all the changes: 

The complexity of the acquisition system, combined with the interest in quickly getting to the best deal for the taxpayer and warfighter, results in an overburdened workforce. The existing work force cannot quickly interpret the rules due to having limited experience. Until we fix the complexity and understand how to manage our priorities (Is it speed? Is it capability? Is it public ‘good’?), we will have continuous turmoil in the acquisition process and workforce. A subsequent article will address complexity and priority-management. 

Does the Acquisition Workforce receive Responsibility along with Authority? 

What about Process? How much do we ‘trust’ the Workforce: 

There is another issue outside of the acquisition workforce skills that burdens the acquisition system, slowing down its ability to deliver quickly. And that is process. The current state of acquisition process has an inordinate number of entities who have the authority to slow down the delivery of products. Although well intended, Legislation and Service/Component recognition of an inexperienced acquisition workforce resulted in the creation of many levels of review to offset perceived risk. This review process has been shown to hold up procurement activities for months, and even on occasion for years. There is some activity, (I was witness to some activity in the Army) where the process is being carefully reviewed to remove as much burden from practice as feasible. There may be risk, but what is the return or benefits of reviews? Has it improved acquisition outcomes enough to offset the delay to the warfighter and costs to the taxpayer? With an inexperienced workforce we must acknowledge there is risk. To offset risk, organizational constructs such as the Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) and Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) make inherently good sense by centralizing experienced workforce in a collaborative “whole of Service” environment to manage and balance risk to outcome. They also are a great training opportunity for junior workforce members. 

Perhaps we should measure progress to help balance risk to reward and help the Workforce: 

USD AT&L carefully collected data on the Defense acquisition systems products to conduct an analysis of its performance, a first effort of its kind. All legislative and policy change should be based on a hypothesis backed by data, and all change in general should be measured for its effectiveness. It allows for the workforce to self-evaluate, understand the underlying principles of acquisition, and share in the broader DOD acquisition experience and not just their home Service experience. The first such review was entitled, ‘Performance of the Acquisition System.” It highlighted successes and failures, and raised questions about perceived “truths” about process and practice that are being carefully reviewed to understand the underlying incentives and causes. Gradual versus rapid change has shown to be more effective in creating long lasting successful practice. This does not mean slow, it means deliberate. If this effort continues, the Department, Congress, the warfighters, and the public will benefit from fact- based change. A subsequent article will address fact-based change. 

Is the Message to our Workforce and Ourselves Continue to gain Experience and have Patience? 

In summary, an inexperienced workforce is limited in its capacity to manage complex systems such as our current acquisition system. We need to focus on simplification of process and growing of experience, and use data based analysis of outcomes to determine what policies do or do not work. Our nature is not to have patience to measure progress before instituting more change, but the workforce that works in this system, that delivers the means for our national security, deserves it.



  1. For the federal government: "Requiring" is the process of describing the capability to be built; 'Resourcing' is the process of programming, budgeting, and execution of funds; and 'Acquiring' is the process of buying the equipment that is required and resourced.



The views expressed in this essay are the author’s own and do not reflect the official policy or position of NDU, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.