13 Apr 15. The basic idea behind the Defense Department’s Better Buying Power initiative, now entering its third iteration, has been to improve acquisition through continuous improvement in many areas simultaneously, the Pentagon’s acquisition chief said here today.
Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, discussed acquisition reform and the tenets of Better Buying Power 3.0 in a speech at the Brookings Institution — a public policy think tank located here.
“Underlying all of the Better Buying Power initiatives has been the idea that the way you … improve acquisition is through a process of continuous improvement,” he said. “The way to make progress is to make incremental progress in lots of different areas all at the same time.”
Kendall said he’s seen many “fads” regarding acquisition reform that have attempted to do a few big things in trying to make a huge difference.
“History doesn’t suggest that that’s a success,” he told the audience. “In fact, it’s suggested when you try to move everything in the same direction and sort of adopt a uniform policy, you tend to do as much breakage as you do fixing of things. And you have to be very careful about that.”
Kendall said that’s been the idea with Better Buying Power since the initiative debuted about five years ago, when Defense Secretary Ash Carter was the department’s top acquisition official.
Legislation A Limited Tool
Kendall applauded the amount of discussion about acquisition reform that has included members of Congress, but he added that he thinks legislation is limited in what it can do.
Citing his own background as an engineer and technical manager, Kendall said “there’s very little that you can do from the point of view of legislation that will make somebody a better engineer, or a better program manager, or a better contracting person.”
“At the end of the day,” he said, “whether you’re in industry or government, that’s the sort of thing we have to have. We have to have people who are very, very good at what they do.”
One of the fundamentals of Better Buying Power, Kendall said, is the increased emphasis on professionalism and on building professionalism within the workforce.
“There’s an awful lot that I can do with existing legislative authorities,” he said, “but there are some things that I can’t do. I can’t, for example, remove some of the things that burden our program managers.” One initiative DoD officials shared with the House Armed Services Committee is designed to remove some of the overhead placed on the department’s people that actually distract them from doing their real jobs, Kendall said.
Motivated by Technological Superiority
Kendall said innovation is a key component of Better Buying Power 3.0. “That’s, I think, part of a growing recognition that we do have a problem with technological superiority,” he added. “The thing that motivated me more than anything else to do another edition … of Better Buying Power was that concern.”
The initiative, Kendall said, is set up with a “punchline” of achieving dominant capabilities through technical excellence and innovation. “That’s a return to focusing attention on the products that we build,” he said, “and the superiority of those products relative to potential adversaries.”
Kendall said while earlier versions of Better Buying Power were about efficiency, productivity and professionalism, version 3.0 is a “change back toward thinking about our products and focusing particularly on the results we’re trying to achieve.”
Better Buying Power’s Cultural Aspect
A cultural aspect also runs through every version of Better Buying Power, Kendall said.
The first version emphasized cost consciousness and best buying practices, he said, and the second iteration moved in the direction of professionalism and judgment.
“Now in 3.0,” Kendall said, “it’s a focus on a culture of technical excellence, which is the fundamental thing underpinning of 3.0. I want to emphasize more than anything else this is more about continuity than about change.
“The idea here is a shift in emphasis — not a fundamental break with what we’ve been doing in the past,” he continued. “It’s a realignment and a slight shift in direction, but not a fundamental change.”
Grooming Potential Workforce
In addition to discussing Better Buying Power 3.0, Kendall noted a longer-term concept: the need for science, technology, engineering and math education.
For the sake of the country, the economy, quality of life and national security, he said, it’s “very important that this country develop and nurture people who are going to go into these fields and contribute to our society.”
“The department has a limited role in that, but it has a role that matters,” he said. “You need to capture people when they’re young, or you’re not going to capture them.”
While it’s not impossible to go back and get the necessary technical courses after high school, Kendall said, it’s difficult. “It’s best if you start out and get those courses that you need to put you on the track to be in a technical field earlier on,” he said.