WASHINGTON (Army News Service, April 28, 2015) – Heidi Shyu received the attention of senators on Capitol Hill here, when she displayed an illustration of a passenger bus, where the driver was an Army program manager, and the passengers were program stakeholders, including lawmakers.
Shyu serves as the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology. She testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee, subcommittee on readiness and management support, April 22, about ways to reform the acquisition process within the defense community.
Coming from the private sector, Shyu offered her insight as to how the defense acquisition process compares to acquisition in commercial industry.
The bus served as an analogy to illustrate how within the defense community, the stakeholders – those with the most apparent interest in seeing a program move forward – can actually stymie acquisition and increase its cost through the pursuit of parochial interests. The driver of the bus represents the Army officer, who is often solely responsible for guiding a program through to completion, as its “program manager.”
On the bus, each stakeholder, represented as a passenger, had his own steering wheel and brake, but no gas pedal.
Shyu said stakeholders each have their own agenda, which is not always congruent with the goal of seeing a program through to completion, on time and on budget. Instead, each stakeholder can halt the forward momentum of a project, or change its direction, to ensure their own needs are met; though none are compelled to move the program forward, as with a gas pedal.
With so many “drivers” on board, what inevitably happens to the bus – to the Army program – is that it veers off course and “flips over,” she said. Once that happens, stakeholders from other programs converge to take the failed program’s money for their own “stovepiped” programs. Others might use the opportunity to capitalize on the failure of others involved, so as to increase their own standing in the organization.
The bottom line, she said, is that in government acquisition, forward momentum on a program is hindered by the efforts of those involved to use the program as a vehicle for their own interests; and program failure is relished as opportunity for individuals to succeed in the wake of another’s failure, rather than as a crisis for everybody to work together on.
HOW IT’S DONE IN INDUSTRY
In a private company, with revenue stream generated by company profit rather than taxpayer dollars, engineers, finance personnel, manufacturing professionals and contracting agents “are all are incentivized to help the program manager to achieve the cost, schedule and performance.”
In industry, she said, if a program gets into trouble for some reason, “everyone bails in to help the program manager because you’re bleeding cash,” she said. “There’s a financial incentive to reduce loss.”
In regards to program requirements, Shyu said she has seen government program requirements change midstream, without taking into account the impacts the changes would have on cost, schedule or technical risk to the program. In industry, she said, requirements affect performance, cost, schedule and technical risk; the effect on those factors must be calculated and accepted before requirements can be changed.
She also said that private sector program managers are able to eliminate a program requirement if it will not work, if it is determined that it does not serve the goals of the program, or if it unrealistic. No such flexibility exists for program managers in government. Yet, unrealistic requirements are a prime reason for program failure in government, she said.
NEED STABLE BUDGET
Shyu told lawmakers they could help streamline defense acquisition by ensuring that the Army has a stable budget.
“If you hack away at the program on an annual basis, your baseline is constantly moving and you can’t build a foundational program,” she said.
In industry, Shyu said her budget was not only stable, but she also had the ability to get extra cash from a reserve if the unanticipated happened or if a risk did not pay off as planned. Government program managers are not authorized to hold a reserve budget, she said.
On a positive note, she said congressional support to protect the budget for the Paladin Integrated Management, or PIM, resulted in a successful program. She said the PIM program manager had tenacity and “drove it through” to completion.
BOGGED DOWN IN PAPERWORK
Government program managers are needlessly bogged down in filling out forms and briefing stakeholders to meet regulatory requirements, Shyu said. In one case, she said, a program manager had to travel 31 times to the Pentagon to conduct program briefs.
Additionally, she said, too many layers of oversight and bureaucracy slow down a programs forward momentum.
“Defense acquisition is a highly risk-averse, compliance-based process with a checklist mentality that has become unduly cumbersome,” she said.
In the private sector, she said, “I was able to move fast because I could tailor documentation to my program needs.” In government, on the other hand, “there’s an extensive amount of mandatory documentation that you have to compile before you can go through a milestone.”
PEOPLE MATTER MOST
The Army has been fortunate in having a lot of really good program managers and program executive officers, Shyu said.
Many of the program managers are retired colonels, who come back as GS-15s, she said. They return to government “because their hearts are in it.” They would make much more as an industry program manager, but they forgo that incentive because they want to continue to serve.
Shyu said she is worried because many in the civilian acquisition workforce are retiring and it would be hard to get that knowledge and experience back once they leave.
The Army is also under “significant pressure to reduce the civilian workforce,” commensurate with the uniformed drawdown, she added.
Hiring itself is hard enough, she said. As an industry program manager, “I used to get very upset if it took a month to hire someone. Here, I’m delighted when someone is hired within eight or nine months.”