Outsider POV: Anti-Leadership in Defense Acquisition fails the Warfighter and a Nation

posted in: Other Transactions | 2
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For an intellectual, a person who engages in critical thinking, research, and reflection about the reality of society, and who proposes solutions for normative problems, it is vexing to ponder why federal acquisition for R&D remains stuck and wedded to a poor performing Cold War era relic; a highly regulated purchasing system that, technically, has always been inappropriate for the mission and tasks.  Federal acquisition is one of the most studied subjects in the world, the findings are unanimous, the system is a serious problem. The system is, in effect, a disservice to the warfighter, taxpayer, industrial base, national security, posterity and much more!  It exemplifies institutional corruption, it is everywhere and normalized therefore unacknowledged. The system is cluttered with non-value-added junk and rules that stifle, divert, and prevent it from fulfilling its original and primary purpose.  Built on theory and desire for control, uninformed by practical experience, the acquisition system the government uses for R&D and to deliver advanced capabilities, if anything, discourages critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity, while it incentivizes conformity.  This acts like a powerful current that runs against advancing knowledge and innovation.  A former senior SASC member referred to it as a “Soviet-style” system and leadership as “delusional”.  It would be difficult to overstate the problem.

From my perspective, an important failure of leadership occurred about six years ago, a pivotal moment was not seized, the consequences of which will be long lasting.  In 2016 Congress added the final piece needed to create an alternative acquisition system specifically for federal R&D activities – follow-on production for Other Transactions Agreements (OTA). Two years later Congress mandated the DoD to create a ‘preference’ for using these flexible authorities for R&D and to get the workforce educated.  DoD leadership, across the board, ignored this.  Instead, Baby Boomer and Gen X leadership chose to stay the course and indoctrinate the large, up-and-coming Millennial workforce in business-as-usual, teaching them that it is the ‘gold standard’ and to be suspicious of anything else. The largest workforce generation in American history was fresh and willing to learn.  As a USSOCOM Agreements Officer said to me, “for the first 7 years an acquisition professional is up for anything, after that they stick with what they know.”  At that time most of the Millennials were seven or less years into their professional careers.  Leadership’s decision to ignore Congress (who had stepped up), and their inability to recognize a momentous opportunity in favor of business-as-usual was a huge mistake with compounding effects. Negative leadership is rife in the acquisition bureaucracy.  A top DoD acquisition leader repeated to his staff, “The contracting mechanism does not matter!”  Instead, DoD acquisition officials became obsessed with tech-scouting, but they did not equip themselves with the business or contracting wherewithal to acquire, effectively collaborate with, integrate, or utilize technologies when found. This became known as ‘innovation theater’, resulting in a lot of activity but perplexingly little productivity.  This acted as a distraction, wasting time, talent, and resources, but it looked super-cool, a lot of schmoozing and hob-knobbing with tech execs, so it garnered lavish praise from the bureaucracy and many sought to mimic it, still do. This diverted attention to the wrong places, added confusion, and resulted in missed opportunities.

Special note:  Defense acquisition chronically suffers from anti-leadership, devoid of commonly agreed to characteristics of good leadership.  Absent is responsibility, accountability is laughable, no clarity of vision or overarching goals are proffered, missing is motivation and the willingness to go to bat for subordinates and clear the way.  Instead, leaders stand ready to throw them under the bus.  It is a culture of fear with the threat of being thrown into “contracting jail” looming over the workforce.

In times of fear people revert to what they know and comfortable with.  During the pandemic there was little push to innovate process.  The federal workforce and contractors were subjected to pandemic policies good and hard; most folks just tried to maintain and stay sane.  Some did not.  Cultivated talent and momentum was lost and regression occurred.  For more than two years there was no top-level DoD acquisition leadership, vision, or direction!  During the middle of a crisis, acquisition leadership went missing in action, they abandoned ship.

Finally, it seems that folks are waking up once again to realize that the business of federal R&D and the ability to field new capability is a problem, serious and critical.  New policies, rules, and guidance are forthcoming, but will they be visionary, clear, and actionable?  Will those in the variety of leadership positions, including lawyers, be supportive?  OR will DoD just do what it always does and preserve and protect the status quo, while “innovating” at the fringes? The DoD is littered with formerly ‘innovative’ programs, yet business-as-usual endures with ever worsening results… letting everyone down.  The problems are known, there are variety of solutions available (even mandated by law), but learning, exploring, and experience does not come from a webinar or a memo, it comes by doing and though opportunities to expand and learn… ultimately, a community. 

I realize that this is whistling into the wind, that there are no incentives for substantial change.  To the contrary, U.S. defense spending along with weapon sales and profits are at record highs, and conflict is trending between governments.  The globe is militarizing, war is brewing.  Will the U.S. be caught with its pants down, unable to innovate, acquire, and deliver to effectively meet challenges?  It appears so.  Meanwhile, in today’s defense industry, the bureaucrats and bandits are living like it’s the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, decadence.  Cheers, troublemakers! 😉

Note of clarification: Using Other Transactions as flexible acquisition authorities for R&D should not be confused with using OT Consortia.  OT consortia are popularly used as a work-around to the FAR, a hack, and are favored by government contracting and programs offices who use them to outsource work. To that end, they narrow thinking, additionally, the model has clear conflicts of interest, and it is not apparent how these entities are eligible for an OT award when awarded (someone explain this, I bet you can’t). BUT the simple fact that they are unburdened by the FAR and some marketing occurs, makes them better for non-traditional companies who would otherwise be functionally excluded.  It speeds things up for big defense companies too.  This model gives an appearance of ‘innovative’ while being an “easy button” and a hack.  They are very popular, nonetheless, it is past time for these arrangements to clean up and evolve.


written by Christian Dunn – a former teenage punk and performance artist who after college managed community-based non-profits and promoted raves in D.C. and Baltimore, after working as a Congressional Court Reporter he became a creative marketing director for software and conference companies.  For nearly 20 years he has been an entrepreneur venturing into real estate, web sites, marketing and management consulting, special events, and most recently he was the Managing Partner at Strategic Institute for Innovation in Government Contracting.  He is still a punk. 

2 Responses

  1. thomas bruneau

    Well, Christian, this essay certainly keeps me focused. I wonder if the results of the 809 Panel are part of the “…non value-added junk…” since some folks point to the 809 Panel’s recommendations as heading in the right direction.
    Thanks for your thinking of this matter.


  2. Christian

    Hi Tom- The 809 Panel seemed to have minimal effect on outcome. Sadly, the taxpayer spends a fortune on studies, commissions, reports, panels, consultants, you name it, yet, nothing substantial ever changes. The 809 Panel concluded that things continue to get worse. To this day the DoD is still at step one, waiting for leadership to acknowledge and act like this is a serious and critical problem, one deserving of a serious concerted response. PR and hype are no substitute for real innovation.