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Acquisition Reform and the "Bicycle Theory"

A lot of media reporting on defense in recent months has once again focused on how the U.S. should reform what is often called a “broken” defense acquisition system.   For those of us who have…

Acquisition Reform and the "Bicycle Theory"

#FDKenlon
A lot of media reporting on defense in recent months has once again focused on how the U.S. should reform what is often called a “broken” defense acquisition system.
 
For those of us who have been in the defense acquisition profession for awhile (since April 1980 for me), the latest rounds of pronouncements on how to “fix” the problems – real or perceived – that are encountered by today’s Defense Acquisition Workforce (DAW) don’t seem all that different than the solutions offered in the 80s, 90s, and 00s.
 
This is not to say that that all of the ideas on how to improve defense acquisition are all the same – they aren’t. In fact, the recent proposals I have read about in the media appear to cover the entire spectrum from evolutionary to revolutionary change, and everything in between. Some advocate radical changes based on private sector acquisition practices, others advocate a return to a prior DoD business process approach (e.g., let’s undo Goldwater-Nichols), while DoD has advocated a path of systematic improvement based on analysis and data through Better Buying Power (BBP) 2.0 and 3.0.
 
In the international acquisition field, we tend to view U.S acquisition reform proposals through the lens of how allied and friendly nations organize and conduct their defense acquisition activities. Interesting enough, our counterpart defense acquisition professionals in other nations often perform their functions differently than we do, yet they encounter similar calls for reform, and appear to enjoy them just as much … (well, not really).
 
In fact, the entire phenomenon of acquisition reform reminds me of an international trade negotiation concept known as the “bicycle theory”. In essence, the bicycle theory states that the best way to reduce international trade barriers is to continuously negotiate mutually beneficial improvements to the status quo since – just like a bicycle – if you stop negotiating (pedaling) you lose momentum and fail (fall down). The continuous emphasis over the past 30 years on acquisition reform appears to conform with the bicycle theory – we are constantly pedaling hard and have plenty of momentum for change. I have to admit, however, I always wondered a bit about the validity of this theory since, well, you can gather and keep up your momentum but still pedal to the wrong place!
 
As DAW members it’s often said we have a voice but not a vote in what we do. But the fact is that we “vote with our feet” every day when we perform defense acquisition tasks. That is why supporting the full spectrum BBP 2.0 and 3.0 initiatives in the workplace is so important. Of note, there are two International Acquisition and Exportability (IA+E) efforts that are part of BBP – “Defense Exportability Features (DEF)” in BBP 2.0 and “Improving Technology Search and Outreach in Global Markets” in BBP 3.0 – that require DAW involvement to be successful.
 
A former USD(AT+L) – John Young – used to remind us to perform our “day job” well, but always emphasized the importance of looking for opportunities to improve the status quo. To me, acquisition reform is more a journey than a destination. While there is a lot of media rhetoric about a “broken” defense acquisition system and many ideas for radical reform, DoD's BBP initiatives provide the entire DAW with a methodology to “pedal in the right direction” on the path to acquisition reform. Let’s all do our best to implement BBP concepts and initiatives in our workplaces when opportunities arise. Until Next Time – Prof. Frank Kenlon