Retired General Arnold Punaro, Chairman of the Department of Defense’s (DoD) Defense Business Board task force was recently quoted saying that he would “put a match” to the entire set of regulations governing the acquisition of weapons and military equipment and start over. This is a colorful comment by such a senior advisor to the Department, but it is also prescient.
In fact, the DoD over-regulates its process for acquiring new weapons and equipment for the military. This is made obvious by the thousands of pages of regulations described in the task force’s report from earlier this year.
While even General Punaro acknowledges that the match solution is impractical, the sentiment behind it is laudable. The current regulatory system for defense acquisition has evolved over the years, by adding layer upon layer of rules and new bureaucracy such that the system now fails the common sense test. It so segregates decision authorities and responsibilities that the components of the acquisition bureaucracy cannot communicate with each other effectively and efficiently. Ultimately, the regulatory system itself is responsible.
Focusing on the regulations themselves, however, has led some to conclude that the DoD can resolve this problem on its own authority and does not need to go through Congress to seek changes in the underlying statutory law. Technically this is correct, but practically it is not. This is the case for two reasons: First, Congress is a major contributor to the problem, and it is unrealistic to think that during a DoD effort to re-write its acquisition regulations—effectively from scratch—that Congress will just stand idly by. Congress is not a potted plant and is not going to become one under this circumstance.
The second, and more profound reason, is that the problem of over-regulation in the defense acquisition process is as much a cultural issue as a procedural and legal one. This culture can be described as risk-averse and everyone involved in the process, including members of Congress, indulges in it. It stems from an unshakeable, but nevertheless totally unrealistic, commitment to a standard for the acquisition process of permitting no program failures. This culture creates institutional constructs where everybody, and therefore nobody, is ultimately responsible for an individual acquisition.
Congress loves the standard, and individual Members of Congress are quite adept at being demagogues in terms of finding and criticizing what they assert are acquisition failures. The result is the dysfunctional system that exists today. It is only a slight exaggeration to describe this culture as leading to the contradiction of simultaneously creating incentives for killing an acquisition at early juncture for failing to meet the “zero failure” standard, and then categorizing the cancelation decision as itself an acquisition failure. General Punaro may burn the entire set of regulations to ashes, but the culture will remain.
What to do? First, following the recommendations included in the task force’s report would be a good start. The procedural and institutional changes it recommends should be welcomed by Congress and the bureaucracy. In all likelihood, however, neither will welcome them.
Accordingly, the adoption of these de-regulation steps should be seen as the start—not the conclusion—of the reform effort. The procedural and institutional changes must be used to leverage cultural changes. Ultimately, the attempt to implement the recommendations of the Defense Business Board should lead to major fights both in Congress and the bureaucracy. If it does not, then it will serve as compelling evidence that the necessary cultural changes are not being made.
Second, external pressures must be brought on Congress to exercise self restraint. Congress will not do so on its own. This involves everything from dropping the “zero failure” standard, to curtailing earmarks and ending congressional intrusions into acquisition decisions, to limiting its appetite for micromanaging the DoD, to not attempting to categorize individual acquisition decisions as evidence of failures for demagogic reasons.
The fact is that the culture in Congress is a major contributor to the problems with the defense acquisition system. Changing the culture in Congress is never easy, but it is necessary to true and lasting reform of the defense acquisition system. Perhaps, the place to start is for the Defense Business Board task force to produce a follow-up report to one it produced earlier this year that focuses specifically on how Congress contributes to problems in the defense acquisition system and includes a set of recommendations on how Congress should change the way it conducts its business in this area.