Have you noticed? There is much talk about Other Transactions and other innovative business practices. It shows up in the trade press, social media feeds and on websites. Progress is being made but it is slow. Less than 2% of acquisition dollars are executed under OTs, up from about 1% a few years ago, and two years after Congress asked the DoD to develop a preference for their use. A lot of talk is associated with glitz and what appears as public relations theater. Some of these showy examples undermine the true potential of OTs – the potential to create an alternative system to operate alongside the ‘costs too much, takes too long’ traditional system. This is an overdue revolution that prioritizes the good of the Nation, warfighter and taxpayer over bureaucracy.
Congress, in full support, has laid out mandates to implement OTs and other innovative business practices. There are young and mid-career acquisition professionals ready to adopt and implement new and different ways of doing business if only given encouragement or just cover to do so.
Below I paraphrase a seasoned acquisition professional and keen observer who recently advised me:
I’ve found that both the Government and industry are so entrenched in conventional thinking that most often they either aren’t open to or just can’t think through private financing or other innovative approaches.
I see and hear a lot of hype in the AF (DoD in general), but don’t believe the middle-level leadership will accept OTs. The younger professionals see the benefit, but confidentially they tell me that their leadership at the post/base/installation level say the right things without leaning forward.
I tried to convince the PM for a major program development to use an OT. The contracting officer wanted to do so, but the PM and the contracting leadership wouldn’t support it. A perfect candidate for OT and Section 804 Middle Tier acquisition “combo play” to develop a complex operational prototype.
Another phrase I’m sure you’ve heard is “OTs are just another tool in the toolbox.” Before [a deputy assistant secretary for acquisition policy] retired, I met him at his office for about 90 minutes debating how that phrase is inaccurate and doesn’t support intelligent OT use. He was convinced that the Government could use a FAR contract to do anything and OTs offered no advantages.
What is missing? Not the Congressional support. Indeed, congressional mandates have largely been ignored. Implementation of just two mandates would make a huge difference.
(g) Education and Training.-The Secretary of Defense shall-
(1) ensure that management, technical, and contracting personnel of the Department of Defense involved in the award or administration of transactions under this section or other innovative forms of contracting are afforded opportunities for adequate education and training; and
(2) establish minimum levels and requirements for continuous and experiential learning for such personnel… (10 U.S.C. 2371)
SEC. 867. PREFERENCE FOR USE OF OTHER TRANSACTIONS AND EXPERIMENTAL AUTHORITY. In the execution of science and technology and prototyping programs, the Secretary of Defense shall establish a preference, to be applied in circumstances determined appropriate by the Secretary, for using transactions other than contracts, cooperative agreements, and grants entered into pursuant to sections 2371 and 2371b of title 10, United States Code, and authority for procurement for experimental purposes pursuant to section 2373 of title 10, United States Code. (National Defense Authorization Act, 2018)
Years have gone by without action on these mandates. Why?! This follows on years, decades, of neglect, resistance or outright hostility toward OTs; an attitude adopted by many high and mid-level acquisition officials in military departments content with business as usual.
The motivation, ideas and collaborative style of the Millennial generation acquisition professionals and their counterparts need to be unshackled. The acquisition bureaucracy including frozen-middle old-career bureaucrats will not act without clear policy direction and deadlines. If the Secretary of Defense won’t act; if the undersecretaries won’t act, who will? Who will rise to the challenge and take responsibility? Who will create expectations and validate actions? Who will implement what Congress has asked?
It is left to the military departments. Military department secretaries and their assistant secretaries for acquisition should take the lead. This means issuing clear policy directives that create a ‘preference’ for use of sections 2371, 2371b and 2373 of title 10, U.S. Code where applicable. Issue policy directives to ensure OT education and training occurs at commands that have research, development, acquisition and sustainment missions.
Leadership: charter multi-disciplinary teams of smart, motivated people to pave the way for broad acceptance of new ways of doing business. Provide them cover from old school bureaucrats. Allow them to stumble as they learn and achieve. Give them the education they need to embrace problem definition, surveying solutions, and charting strategic thinking and doing. For those not up to the task there will still be plenty of procurement work outside of the problem-solving culture. Create a preference for new ways of doing business in critical areas. In some domains where old methods are good enough change may not be as critical.
If the energy and enthusiasm to contribute by the best of the current generation is not unleashed, they are likely to do what many others have done. After seven or ten years on the job they will leave government for other opportunities -or- go on cruise control to finish out their careers and retire. If new talent is needed, use the tools available to recruit it. There is tremendous opportunity at a crucial period in time to make a big overdue impact. It is time to do what others should have done years ago… the obligation is to lead.
Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality. – Warren Bennis