The Answer is Out There, Neo

So much goodness in just one week!

The week of September 14 has seen the release of three terrific gems for contract professionals.

Dr. Will Roper climbed inside the Matrix to chart a roadmap to digital acquisition. A field guide for de-risking government technology offers detailed instructions with templates for buying agile development. And from leaders of the Air Force COVID-19 acquisition task force come an incisive analysis, clear-eyed critique, and actionable recommendations on why the Strategic National Stockpile of medicine and equipment failed and continues to fail and how to fix it.

 National Strategic Stockpile Woes

In “Why the U.S. Still Has a Severe Shortage of Medical Supplies” in today’s Harvard Business Review news, supply management guru Robert Handfield, along with defense contracting experts Dan Finkenstadt and Peter Guinto, call for a higher profile, greater influence, more expertise, better cross-government coordination, and upgraded tracking technology for the SNS. Full disclosure: I was a member of an advisory group for the Air Force COVID acquisition task force.

Digital Acquisition: There is No Spoon

If you haven’t seen “The Matrix,” with Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne, then watch or rewatch it before you read Air Force Acquisition Chief Will Roper’s new, insanely hip paper, “Take the Red Pill: The New Digital Acquisition Reality.” No, really, I’m not kidding. Watch the movie before you read the paper. You’ll thank me! And then prepare to have your head explode.

Here’s Roper’s warning:

“Should you continue reading, your defense acquisition training—no matter what lifecycle facet, function, or operational domain—becomes a dream from which to wake up … to something new. Digital engineering and management, combined with agile software and open architecture, truly is the ‘red pill’ for traditional defense acquisition.”

According to Roper, examples of the “trinity of digital design technologies” are scarce in industry and government: So far in DoD, only the T-7A Redhawk trainer, Ground Based Strategic Deterrent and Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) programs are samples.

Roper’s paper came out Monday, Sept. 15, the same day the news leaked that the Air Force has designed and flown a prototype NGAD fighter plane using digital twinning--employing Roper’s trinity to virtually design and simulate an aircraft using data from sensors attached to real planes, in this case the F-35 and T-7A.

“The announcement isn’t that we just built an ‘eplane,’ and have flown it a lot of times in our virtual world, which we’ve done, but that we have built a full-scale flight demonstrator and flown it in the real world,” Roper told reporters after the word was out.  

Roper writes about nothing less than blowing up the entire way the Pentagon now buys weapons systems. Using the trinity approach built on technology stacks owned and operated by the government, not industry, would allow new systems to be designed and put into operation in a third or less time than today. Digital twinning means planes, or any weapons system similar enough to an existing one, can be produced fast and in smaller lots because it can be replaced just as fast—say 75 planes every eight years.

As you can imagine, that means little to no sustainment and maintenance cost, much more competition among builders, and more difficult response by adversaries. What’s more, Roper also foresees fleets of planes whose software can be upgraded or replaced in real-time, in immediate response to changes in enemy tactics or capability, for example.

The potential effects are even more mind-blowing than his paper.

De-Risking What's Eating Government

And speaking of software, as you know from a previous post, I am a believer that it is eating government, so we had better get really good at developing, refining, and deploying it quickly. Doing so requires agile software development, something government is not yet all that good at buying. Enter 18F!

18F is a technology consulting service inside the General Services Administration’s Federal Acquisition Service Technology Transition Services program. 18F works with federal agencies for a fee, helping them deploy and buy tech and tech services. The new 18F field guide, “De-risking Government Technology,” draws on 18F’s work across federal organizations to lay out every step of the process of acquiring agile development.

Since software is eating government, de-risking tech essentially is learning how to most effectively develop or buy the development of software. As I wrote, the Air Force and other military services are ramping up in-house development capability. But it’s likely they and civilian agencies still will need to buy it, too. And that’s where the 18F field guide shines.

Remarkably clearly written and easily read, it addresses the entire process, from planning to deciding what to buy to kicking off and monitoring a project. It even includes a 14-page agile contract template. Just to tease some good parts, 18F recommends and shows you how to;

  •  Conduct market surveillance and investigation, right down to how to talk with salespeople and vendors
  •  Draft a performance-based statement of objectives (be still my heart!) for a time-and-materials contract with short periods of performance
  •  Write a quality and assurance plan (complete with a sample)
  •  Evaluate vendor proposals using technical and staffing approach, similar experience and price
  •  Effectively review proposals from software developers against the four evaluation factors

The guide even covers how to hold a kick-off meeting and lots of tips for the best ways to oversee agile projects and administer their contracts.

Outside the Box Blog

Thoughtful commentary every week from Anne Laurent and the community about trends, surprises, lessons, and cautions in pursuit of Acquisition Innovation. Stay up to speed on acquisition innovation here.