Beyond Business as Usual: Improving Defense Acquisition through Better Buying Power


Beyond Business as Usual: Improving Defense Acquisition through Better Buying Power

Monday, July 18th, 2016 - 8:53
The U.S. federal government spends nearly a half-trillion dollars per year through contracts, buying everything from office supplies and automobiles to professional services, information technology, and complex weapon systems.

The effectiveness with which the government buys these products increasingly separates mission success from mission failure. Indeed, as recent events (e.g., the initial rollout of illustrate, acquisition can play a role in both the government’s most laudable achievements and its highest-profile disappointments. As agencies continue to face pressure to do more with less, getting more for the money spent through contracts is critical. Now, more than ever, it is imperative that government is a smart buyer.

For the modern government agency, the difference between mission accomplishment and mission failure increasingly turns on the ability to be a smart buyer—to build an efficient and effective acquisition enterprise on a foundation of professionalism, expertise, and commitment to getting the best possible business deal when buying goods and services. Perhaps nowhere is smart buying as important as at DOD, which accounts for approximately seven of every 10 cents in annual federal contract spending, but a matter of national security. Despite these strong imperatives to get things right, value-enhancing acquisition performance remains one of DOD’s most elusive goals.

Despite these strong imperatives to get things right, acquisition remains one of the Pentagon’s most significant managerial challenges. While not all is amiss—for every failure or setback, there are many unheralded successes, attributable to the hard work of government and industry professionals—after over 60 years of attempts at reform, efficient and effective acquisition remains an elusive goal. In light of this history, a recent report characterized defense acquisition as exhibiting “a significant degree of entropy”—a tendency to revert to established operating procedures despite the application of strong external forces. This same report went on to argue, however, that “meaningful improvement is possible” in the current environment, due in large part to a degree of leadership commitment not seen for many years. Within both DOD and Congress, the job of improving defense acquisition is a priority for knowledgeable, experienced, and committed leaders.

For the last five years, leaders within DOD’s Office of Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics (AT&L) have been leveraging downward pressure on defense spending to improve the Pentagon’s acquisition outcomes. They call their effort “Better Buying Power,” so-named because the change they envision aims at getting more for each dollar DOD spends on buying goods and services, or, “doing more without more."

Though not the first (nor, no doubt, the last) of DOD’s efforts to improve its acquisition practices, Better Buying Power is a timely and instructive case in the challenges and opportunities of enhancing acquisition performance through a commitment to continuous improvement—to constantly seeking greater efficiency and productivity in the acquisition enterprise rather than instituting a single reform or policy change. While some may claim defense is a bad model for others to follow, and would thus argue Better Buying Power is not of interest to a non-defense audience, this report offers a different perspective. The Defense Department does acquire a number of goods and services unique to its warfighting mission, but it also buys many products civilian agencies buy, such as professional services and information technology. Moreover, the principles Better Buying Power emphasizes apply equally to the acquisition of military-and non-military-specific products.

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