Why DOD needs more than OTAs to fix acquisition

The Air Force materiel commander says organizational culture matters more than novel procurement authorities when it comes to reforming cumbersome processes.

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Acquisition reform will take more than creative regulatory workarounds if the Defense Department is going to truly modernize and advance, said Air Force Materiel Commander Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski.

Speaking at a March 14 Air Force Association event, Pawlikowski called other transaction authorities (OTAs), a legal workaround to traditional acquisition processes endorsed in the 2016 defense spending bill, “the latest buzzword” that requires both a major culture change and better industry-government collaboration to work well.

“First of all we need to both understand what an other transaction authority means” and “not to expect more than what we can get out of them,” she said.

Pawlikowski said she’s seen four waves of acquisition reform over her career. But to keep up with software advances, she said, the Defense Department is going to need more than other transaction authorities.

"We have to truly embrace this idea of experimentation in prototyping," she said. "Recognizing that we will spend money to build things that we will never buy because we will find out early it doesn't do what we really want. … Money spent on things that we try and don’t adopt -- that will be more than recouped."

Pawlikowski also said government's insistence on owning the technical baseline, namely data or intellectual property, is ultimately suffocating for innovation limits the effectiveness of OTAs.

“If we think that in order for us to own the technical baseline, we have to have that data then we will shut out that opportunity to have innovation,” she said, noting that for many small businesses, intellectual property is often their entire business. Such firms can’t survive if they’re locked into giving up those rights to the government.

"We have to close that requirements loop decision process as much as we do the acquisition process,” Pawlikowski said.

During a House Armed Services Committee hearing on emerging threats March 14, the Acting Assistant Defense Secretary for Research and Engineering Mary Miller made a similar point. Overly rigid or poorly crafted acquisition requirements can be antithetical to warfighter needs, Miller said.

"Sometimes we get requirements that were given to acquisition that aren't really what the warfighter wants," Miller told the committee. "And the experimentation venues that the undersecretariat was given, the ability to do prototyping experimentation, are helping to refine that before we get launched."

While tweaks and added functionality can take time, for Pawlikowski, the issue of acquisition reform ultimately comes down to practices, rather than the technology itself.

"Requirements change," she said. "We’ll get over it."

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