For improving military procurement, there’s no alternative to cultural change.

And all the brilliant private-sector managers who say if only I were running the Defense Department, I know what I’d do? Well, the first thing they’d discover is the Civil Service Commission wouldn’t allow them to fire the 50,000 non-performers as they would have done in their own business, for example.
— Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, 23 February 2002.

John McCain thinks he has a way. The Senate version of the National Defense Authorization Act mandates a 7.5 percent reduction in civilian staff next year across the department. By 2019, civilians at Defense should be down 30 percent. As Politico Pro reported, the Senate version further directs that the head-cutting should proceed by performance assessments: those deemed least successful are out first. This markedly contrasts with the current approach, which “gives heavy weight to seniority and veteran status to determine whom to keep and whom to let go.” Naturally, the labor unions are up in arms, as is to be expected, and no further noted. But will this make a difference? The challenge of improving the performance of the procurement enterprise depends on both people and processes. The problems therein are not easily separated, but there’s no alternative to cultural change.

Start with hiring. To backfill for some of those “non-performers”, the bill also provides mechanisms for bringing aboard smart, new staff from industry. This may or may not go well. Back in 1996, Vice President Al Gore lamented that reinventing government should not simply mean “sticking a business man with no government experience in charge of a government agency,” as it often has before and since. Moreover, at least two of the service acquisition executives have complained recently about the relative inexperience of some of their staff. Fully qualifying an acquisition professional in the Department, according to the strictures of the old DoD 5000 series, is a seven to nine-year process. But it’s also important to question what, at even that point, they’re actually qualified, vice just authorized, to do. At the deckplate level, some of what they’re doing recently has been pretty questionable.

Note how it’s particularly bad at that Defense-wide procurement directorate known as OSD AT&L. According to the Government Accountability Office, Acquisition Category 1D programs (those managed centrally at AT&L) have on average required two years for approval to proceed at “Milestone B”—basically the transition from research to development—and “the requirements, in total, averaged 5,600 staff days to document.” To address this insanity, the Senate bill also intends to expand the use of the Other Transactions Authority, Experimental Authorities, and generally more commercial purchasing practices. It extends Rapid Acquisition Authority to Cyber Command, allowing that organization to undertake more direct purchasing, without the involvement of the military departments. All this is meant to speed the process.

But what if they don’t use it? The problem comes in the gap between legislative direction and administrative implementation. Experimental Authorities, after all, have actually been on the books since 1926—a fact noted by the reforming Section 800 Panel of 1991. They’re just still not much used, as program managers generally eschew that latitude as too risky. The process is gummed up, but the people haven’t been helping. Of late, this timidity has gotten worse. As one senior defense official put it recently, “there has never been a wider gap, from the senior acquisition executives’ strategic intent, through the program executive officers’ and managers’ professional intent, to the contracting officers’ technical execution.” The contracting officers, it’s claimed, “just want to stay out of jail,” and so take the least interpretable courses of action.

Some of them, though, should get the nagging feeling that always taking the safest course isn’t really good stewardship of your employer’s money. (For background, try Matthew 25:14–30 or Luke 19:12–27.) Doing good actually can require initiative and serious thinking. It’s hard work, but the alternative is the madness of reflexive LPTA. As I recently heard an experienced Congressional staff member comment, “the devil is in the details, and the details are in the contracts.” Your programs are thus only as good as your contracts, but it’s even more than that. All contracts are inherently incomplete, and that’s both economically efficient and recognized in contract law. Trying to run all nuance out of business relationships can put a supply chain management organization on a path to sclerosis.

As Gore went on, “it is the systems that need to change, not the personalities. Although, from time to time, change is needed there, too.” The change that’s needed now is in not just process, but people too—new leadership from new leaders. For when fresh recruits join an organization with a pernicious but strong culture, the worst values can be inculcated in all but the most idealistic. To change that culture, the political appointees in Defense need wide authority to replace those senior personalities who constitute the problem. We’re long since gotten past Better Buying Power 1.0’s presumption that cultural change was “too hard”. The authority that McCain’s wants to grant is a start. Perhaps the next administration will use it.

James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. He notes that the US Civil Service Commission was actually split in 1978 into the Office of Personnel Management and the Merit Systems Protection Board. But who’s counting?