The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

DSP satellite
While Air Force officials point to the DSP satellite program as a success story, problems elsewhere are leading many to push for procurement reform. (credit: Northrop Grumman)

Procurement reform—again

Back in 1981, when the “Movement Conservatives” were trying to influence the staffing of the first Reagan Administration, they coined a slogan: “Personnel are policy.” By this, they meant that if Reagan chose individuals for his sub-cabinet posts who were not fully committed to him and to his ideas, the bureaucracy would ignore his policy guidance. For both Republican and Democratic administrations, this has often proved to be true.

One notorious example in recent years was in the previous Bush Administration, when the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, Dick Darman, failed to stand up for almost all of the policies of the president whom he ostensibly served, and watched Congressional Democrats tear the administration’s programs apart. Darman actually claimed to be friendly towards NASA and towards the Moon/Mars initiative of that period, the Space Exploration Initiative. Despite his cajoling, the Democrats in Congress went through the NASA budget with a microscope and took out anything remotely connected to the SEI. (The leader of this effort in the Senate was Barbara Mikulski.) In any case Darman surrendered to the Democrats on their biggest issue, which was getting the President to break his “no new taxes” pledge. How much of that decision was based on his fears of what Congress would do to NASA is unknown, but it must have at least a small factor.

In any case, fiddling with the rules by which the government purchases things does not seem to guarantee any sanity when it comes to the way the Feds spend money. In the end, it comes down to people making decisions. Years ago, a wise official in Washington ordered his staff never to say, “The White House wants.” After all, he said, “Buildings do not have wants.” In spite of every effort to hide or evade responsibility, every decision to spend money is made by someone. Therefore, anyone looking to reform or fix the process had better begin by looking at who is involved.

Years ago, a wise official in Washington ordered his staff never to say, “The White House wants.” After all, he said, “Buildings do not have wants.”

The Air Force’s Darleen Druyan fiasco should be an instructive lesson for the whole federal government. Notwithstanding her reputation as a tough and honest negotiator, she not only solicited favors for herself and her family from Boeing, but also was able to shape most Air Force procurement activities over a ten-year period with little or no supervision from the Air Force’s political leadership. The repercussions of her activities will go on hurting the Air Force (not to say Boeing) for many years to come.

Marvin Sambur, who recently quit as the Air Force’s assistant secretary for acquisition, is concerned and puzzled by the way the scandal has impacted the Air Force. One interesting point he makes is that Senator McCain “…would never talk to us. I have no idea to this day why. I walk out of this office completely baffled as to why we are in the doghouse. I’m completely baffled because every time an IG [Inspector General] report comes out, and we’re cleared, he goes back and asks for another IG report.” No one should be surprised that political results, rather than military effectiveness, comes out of a political process.

Sambur may have been the one to limit Druyan’s authority, but he was her last political boss, so he had to be the one to take the political bullet for her misdeeds. In fact, Druyan was able to do what she did because the process for selecting high-level government personnel is badly broken. Not only is it financially suicidal for a normal person without an individual fortune to take a sub-cabinet government job, but anyone who is prepared to pass through the investigation and confirmation process for a mid-level job, such as assistant undersecretary, has almost certainly lived such a relatively spotless life that they must see themselves as divorced from the normal run of their fallible fellow citizens. Or else, they must have spent their whole career working inside the government, an almost equally isolated life.

Thus, the people who end up making the critical civil and military scientific and engineering procurement decisions are men and women who specialize in staying out of trouble and keeping their heads down. These people are the antithesis of entrepreneurs and hard-charging risk takers who create breakthrough technologies or who lead successful fighting units. Having a preponderance of prudent people in acquisition is probably a good thing, but any large institution that has purged all the “colorful” people from its leadership is not one that is going to perform well in times of turmoil and crisis.

For military space operators, the slow pace of development and deployment does not seem to be so critical.

This has shown up in the Pentagon’s problems with getting enough properly armored vehicles into Iraq and the difficulty the system has had deploying new sensors to help defeat the various bomb threats. Some elements within the US government have done an excellent job, such as the Army’s Rapid Fielding Initiative, but others have not. A year and a half ago, the Army was supposed to have begun fielding a new assault rifle. The troops are still waiting.

For military space operators, the slow pace of development and deployment does not seem to be so critical. General Brian Arnold of the Space and Missile Command was quoted in Air Force Magazine recently, making the case that the military’s procurement and operation of space systems is not broken. He pointed to the Defense Support Program (DSP) launch detection satellites and to the GPS constellation as being major success stories. He also pointed out that “Space development is different from aircraft development… it requires much more money up front, early in a program’s life cycle—70 percent, as opposed to 27 to 30 percent for air.” However, he and other Air Force space leaders have pointed out that there is a dangerous shortage of experienced managers.

This is probably the core problem with most of the department’s troubled programs: a lack of trained and experienced personnel. The Air Force has been trying to address this issue by forming a new “space cadre,” but the problems may be more on the civilian side of the DoD. The permanent acquisition civil servants, like Druyan, will always have an advantage over uniformed experts who, after all, are only in Washington for one or two tours—three to six years. What is more disturbing is that they tend to have an advantage over the sub-cabinet appointees who must go through a hellish confirmation process and then are forced to spend a large percentage of their time responding to political pressure—mostly from Congress, but also from the White House and from elsewhere in the government, and even from other parts of the Defense Department.

At this stage, all the easy procurement reforms have probably already happened. Realistically, changes in the controlling legislation are going to be based on political compromises and not on what will make the system work better. The big reform that must come next is fixing the way in which the personnel that make these decisions are chosen, recruited and managed. This set of reforms is no more than a small cloud on the horizon. The test over the next few years will be to see whether this administration can ride through the coming storm.