Commanders Need to Know Innovative Acquisition
As a budget officer, I’ve briefed hundreds of commanders to ensure they know their fiscal responsibilities in their new roles. I always asked, “What do you want to accomplish during your time as a squadron commander?” The exact answers varied, but the intent was always the same: solve their squadrons’ problems. Looking back, I see patterns between those who succeeded and those who failed to accomplish their goals.
Successful commanders were skilled in a lot of areas: leadership style, ability to communicate, forming relationships, and motivating troops. But, perhaps most importantly, the successful commanders all had the ability to navigate government bureaucracy — specifically the acquisitions process. This skill may seem trivial to a leader’s success (or at least unsexy), especially when comparing it to leadership style. However, it is the single trait I have consistently seen in leaders who get things done. It is the one skill I wish I had learned earlier in my career to better prepare me to be a commander one day.
Understand the Acquisitions Team
Commanders often tell supporting agencies about their challenges and get frustrated when there’s not immediately a way to solve them. The truth is that commanders don’t always have a clear understanding of the roles the supporting agencies play.
The role of an installation’s supporting agencies is to assist the base in acquiring the resources needed to execute mission successfully. This requires leveraging expertise in functions such as finance, legal, resource advising, contracting, and acquisitions. As these agencies are siloed from their customers (the operational units), their incentives tend to focus on internal metrics that aren’t always aligned with increasing mission effectiveness for their customers. The primary reason for this is because it’s difficult to quantify mission effectiveness, so the acquisition team’s metrics tend to lean towards internal numbers that are easier to quantify. By having metrics that don’t align with the customer’s mission effectiveness, it’s entirely possible for supporting agencies to receive negative feedback from the squadrons they support at the base — all while simultaneously receiving praise from their functional career field for exceeding their metrics. This scenario happens far too frequently and often leads to friction between supporting agencies and commanders.
The system isn’t changing anytime soon. And, commanders typically don’t have the support they need to effectively solve problems for their squadrons. So, what now? If the system isn’t set up to help commanders solve problems, who’s going to do it? If you’re looking to follow in the footsteps of the most successful commanders, the answer is: you.
What’s at Stake?
If commanders fail to fix the problems they set out to at the beginning of their tour, the short-term consequences are unlikely to affect them. Most commanders serve two-year tours, don’t gain significant ground in solving their operators’ problems, and pass their squadron off to the next commander in roughly the same condition that they received it, but with tech and processes that are two years older. While it’s true that there’s little strategic impact on the Air Force as a whole when a single squadron isn’t progressing, when the majority of squadrons are caught in this cycle, the longer-term effects can have considerable strategic impact.
The longer-term effects are more problematic as the U.S. military fails to keep up with industry and near-peer adversaries. I see this phenomenon in my current job as an Education With Industry fellow working as a tech engagement manager at Dcode, where I help connect commercial technology companies and the U.S. government. In managing Dcode’s portfolio of artificial intelligence and big data analytics companies, I recognize that a lot of those companies can’t do business with large parts of the government because the government’s technical infrastructure isn’t modern enough and the data isn’t clean enough for these companies to effectively implement their technology.
Regardless of the reason that change doesn’t occur, the result is the same. The government continues to fall farther behind industry and will eventually fall behind near-peer adversaries unless the status quo transforms.
American servicemembers and citizens will suffer if the military can’t integrate new technical solutions being leveraged in the commercial sector. My own career field — financial management — could likely become significantly more effective by simply adopting technology that our industry counterparts already use. If industry continues to outpace the government, the government will continue to hemorrhage talent as individuals leave to work on cutting-edge systems instead of ones that still operate on floppy disks. Not to mention, our adversaries are accelerating their adoption of new technology and closing the capability gap with the United States.
Commanders’ Priorities and Success Stories
To illustrate ways that commanders can work with acquisitions to persevere and effect real change, let’s look to some actual examples. First, know that commanders’ priorities often fall into three broad categories: quality of life, developing people, and mission effectiveness. When commanders pursue improvements in any of these areas, they almost always receive a “No” at some point during the process. Leaders who know how to navigate government bureaucracy can get past that “No” and make improvements a reality.
Quality of life
Since most commanders take over squadrons that are operating in older facilities, they often set a goal of renovating their physical infrastructure to improve employee morale. But the vast majority of commanders fail at this goal due to lack of funding. Some commanders have received funding for their projects that weren’t high on the base priority list by finding excess resources at the end of the fiscal year (using what are known as fall out funds or expiring funds depending on what branch of government you’re in)working with finance to pull statistics on the amount of fall out funds received in the last several fiscal years to show a high likelihood of funds becoming available. With the civil engineering agency convinced to prepare their project, they can receive the funds and execute.
Developing their people
An early focus for new commanders is to train their people in their relevant technical and leadership skills. In general, squadron offsites or conferences are a common way to conduct the training. The goal of an offsite — somewhat like a corporate retreat — is to separate from the participants’ day-to-day environment to foster fresh creativity, à la Silicon Valley. But there are regulations around government funded conferences which require different approval authority depending on the overall cost of the conference that can be too bureaucratic to overcome. Nevertheless, one commander got past a “No” from legal by reviewing the Department of Defense Conference Guide and keeping the training event’s cost under $20,000, which kept the approving authority for the conference at the commander’s level and created no requirement for the commander to report up the chain of command. Though this example doesn’t illustrate an acquisition, the commander used his knowledge of policy and reframed his requirement to fit into existing regulations that he could execute — a necessary skill in innovative procurement.
Another way by which commanders develop their people is by procuring books for their leadership team using squadron funds. Some people have considered such books as part of employees’ personal property, for which the government doesn’t pay. The workaround, then, was to build a squadron library so that the books would be squadron property and not personal property. The base library said “No.” The commander found that library regulations stated that books could be procured by someone other than the library if the library didn’t have what the member needed. Because the commander needed 10-plus copies of each book so that his flight commanders could read them at the same time and deliberate together, the base library couldn’t support his needs. As a result, he was able to get a “Yes.”
Mission effectiveness and new technology
Though commanders often make the case for new technology that can help their missions, most fail in acquiring that technology. This situation is a universal area of frustration as leaders see commercial technology that can solve their operational problems but struggle to get it on contract. But some leaders have made progress in this area by finding creative ways to bring technology in the door.
One successful method commanders have used is a commercial solutions opening that enables a unit to state its problem, instead of listing its specific requirements, and allow industry to bring the solutions.
An example of this method could be a security forces unit wanting to improve the performance of its airmen in the battlefield but not knowing what specific technology could accomplish that objective. The unit could push out a commercial solutions opening that requests solicitations for technology that “increases the tactical warfighter’s lethality.” This broad approach could result in solicitations that range from a new type of night vision goggles, to human performance lotion that helps muscles recover faster, to covert communication and tracking devices. This scenario not only saves the government time spent searching for potential technology solutions online but also brings in technology the government may have never considered. Additionally, when the government is buying equipment through a commercial solutions opening, the end user doesn’t have to choose the offer that has the “lowest price technically acceptable” but can, instead, choose a vendor — or multiple vendors — based on which ones the end user thinks offers the best product. This may not sound like a big deal to those unfamiliar with acquisitions, but operators who have tried to buy something through the government know how frustrating it can be when they’ve found the exact product they wanted but couldn’t find a way to get it on contract.
Another way to bring technology in the door is by understanding purchase card thresholds. Government purchase cards have different thresholds for different requirements. And, by reclassifying its requirement or negotiating with vendors to decrease their prices, a squadron may be able to purchase what it needs on a government purchase card rather than having to go through the contracting process. This approach delivers the needed product or service faster and enables the contracting office to focus on larger, more complex requirements.
A tougher challenge to overcome is not having the right color of money. Congress puts laws in place to dictate the type of requirements people can buy with each category, or “color,” of funds. Normally, units can’t buy new technology because they have operations and maintenance funds (earmarked to replace and maintain instead of building new stuff) and don’t have research, development, or testing and evaluation funds (which is what you need to buy new stuff). I’ve never seen a commander successfully bring research and development funds down to the base level where they don’t exist. However, I have seen squadrons take their problem to where those funds are and execute their requirements there. A scenario in which that happens frequently is the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program in the Air Force that AFWERX has transformed in recent years. AFWERX has coordinated with the Air force SBIR Center of Excellence to loosen the rules around who can participate in the small business program. This has dramatically increased the number of companies and Air Force operators participating in the billion-dollar program. The increased flexibility has resulted in operational units partnering with a small business, using someone else’s money and contracting team to get the company on contract, which ultimately allows units to work directly with industry to prototype solutions to warfighter problems. The Small Business Innovation Research process is not limited to the Air Force as there are 11 total federal agencies that use it.
Commanders can find success by bringing in commercial technology. However, they have to think outside the box when it comes to acquisitions and contracting. The above scenarios are examples of commanders doing so, but, for each of these successful commanders, there are countless other commanders who have attempted to solve the same problems but failed. The difference between the two outcomes is that the successes illustrated above were brought about by self-taught commanders with an understanding of innovative acquisitions.
The Good News: You Can Develop This Skill
Being able to successfully navigate the bureaucracy in government acquisitions is not a skill with which anyone is born. Everyone who does have this skill has had to learn it themselves, which means that you can learn it, too. Though they can be similarly difficult to navigate, there are numerous resources available to assist individuals in learning innovative acquisitions, whether through industry leaders like Dcode or government organizations like AFWERX, NavalX, and Army Futures Command.
To date, there’s no easy place for operators to go to learn innovative acquisitions given that Defense Acquisition University is organized to train acquisitions professionals, not people from other specialties. I know this fact is true because my first-hand learning of innovative acquisitions has been a long, arduous process that’s required many relationships to be formed and Google searches to be conducted. But I was truly throwing spaghetti at the wall while waiting to see what would stick with that approach, which ended with 90 percent of my research being useless.
Operators who want to learn how to successfully navigate the bureaucracy in government acquisitions shouldn’t have to go through the process I’ve gone through. There should be an easier way. With no clear roadmap for the government to address this knowledge gap, I’ve pushed for the company where I am doing my Education With Industry fellowship, Dcode, to help solve this challenge. As a result, Dcode is now launching an innovative acquisition training course.
The U.S. government — and the Department of Defense in particular — can’t successfully implement emerging technology solutions without innovative acquisitions. So, whether you leverage industry or decide to go at this challenge alone, know that time spent learning innovative acquisition skills will provide some of the best return on investment for any training you could do during your time in the military.
Go Forth and Learn
The answer to a lot of questions that commanders ask is “No,” but it doesn’t have to be. The most effective leaders are those who are able to move past “No” to get things done. The current system is siloed, with supporting agencies not incentivized to help commanders solve their squadrons’ problems. While learning to navigate acquisitions is not the sexiest thing that servicemembers can do, it is one of the most effective things. The best way to implement change is to learn innovative acquisitions yourself — and there are plenty of people and resources out there to help you if you’re willing to learn from them.
Capt. Garrett J. Custons is an active-duty Air Force officer currently assigned to the Air Force innovation team at AFWERX. He has previously served in various government and industry innovation positions throughout his career.
The views in this article are entirely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.