Igniting a Cultural Insurgency in the Acquisition Community: Part II

OTH, multi-domain operations, emerging security environmentBy Gabriel Almodovar 

Estimated Reading Time: 16 minutes 

Editor’s note: The following article is the second of a two-part series discussing the state of the current Air Force and Department of Defense acquisition culture, and how to change this culture to more efficiently and effectively deliver capability to the warfighter. Part I focused on the history of the current acquisition culture while Part II provides recommendations for improvement. These articles are an excerpt of research conducted at Air Command and Staff College in 2018. To request a complete transcript of the research paper, please send an email to gabriel.almodovar@us.af.mil.

A New Approach to Acquisition Professional Development
To change its acquisition culture, the USAF must create, support, and enable more programs designed to develop more acquisition professionals by leveraging the experiences, collaboration, and cultures of different organizations and industries. The USAF and DOD have programs designed to change the acquisition culture through accelerated experience-based learning. Experiential learning has great potential for professional development because it allows acquisition professionals to interact with cultural exemplars from across the acquisition community and America. Unfortunately, these programs (when cumulatively combined) only affect approximately 70 acquisition professionals a year. Currently, the USAF through its various accession programs commissions or hires almost a thousand acquisition professionals a year and the USAF acquisition workforce total is approximately 25,000 civil service and 10,000 military members.

The disparity in the number of programs available to foster and inculcate desired cultural characteristics versus the size of the workforce demands the DOD and USAF look for more ways to cost-effectively develop more programs to aid in the development and training of acquisition professionals through experience. As one report recommended, the USAF should “develop the acquisition workforce using rapid programs to provide full lifecycle insight and hands-on experience.” In fact, the 2018 NDAA, section 225, titled Support for National Security Innovation and Entrepreneurial Education, states the Secretary of Defense “may encourage Federal employees and members of the Armed Forces to participate in a national security innovation and entrepreneurial education programs…in order to gain exposure to modern innovation and entrepreneurial methodologies.” The NDAA goes on to recommend different programs for the Secretary to consider to include: Hack the Air Force, Hack the Pentagon, the Air Force Digital Service, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) programs, Hacking for Defense, and others. The USAF should take lead and begin implementing or supporting such programs to create a better-performing acquisition system. As Chief of Staff of the Air Force (CSAF) General David Goldfein said at a 2018 Air Force Association Symposium, “we need game changers in the labs, game changing partnerships with academia and industry, and game changing processes that untethers our professional acquisition workforce.” The USAF can foster those game changers using the following experience-based program models to help spread a much-needed culture shift across the USAF and DOD.

Leveraging and Expanding Education with Industry
The USAF should leverage the Education With Industry (EWI) program by creating and delegating down authority for installations to partner with local industry to cost effectively expand the program. Tracing back to 1947, the USAF EWI program annually selects approximately 34 active duty and civil service professionals for a 10-month educational assignment within the commercial industry related to the participant’s career field. The EWI program provides participants with “on-the-job education, experience and exposure to [the] private sector…or other government agencies not available through formal courses of instruction” at a wide-range of companies and industry sectors. Such experiences allow participants to gain first-hand insight into the cultural qualities that make industries competitive in different environment. The USAF first developed the program because it recognized the need for “a corps of talented officers who were capable of understanding the inner workings of the defense industry” and “who could successfully interpret the Air Force needs in the terms of industry and vice versa.” As part of the 10-month immersion, EWI participants learn through a different perspective and experience their culture and processes. As one EWI participant wrote, “for the past 9 months, I [have] had the unique opportunity to immerse myself into [this company’s] culture, learning industry processes and working side-by-side with industry counterparts.” You can only truly learn a culture through experience and EWI offers a great opportunity to learn a different culture, one vitally important to the success of the DOD and USAF’s acquisition process.

The USAF should facilitate and authorize local commanders, directors, or Program Executive Officers (PEOs) to create mini-EWI programs in partnership with local industry and government to increase the number of developmental opportunities for acquisition professionals. Currently, the Pentagon’s SAF/AQH office provides oversight for the EWI program while the Air University’s Air Force Institute of Technology manages the execution of the program. The current EWI construct is a selective program that involves costly permanent change of stations (PCSs) for military members. The USAF should give Wing Commanders and PEOs the authority to create an EWI-type program at the local level (tailored to their needs, manning-levels, and workload) allowing more acquisition professionals opportunities to experience and learn through an industry partner. By creating local partnerships and exchanges, USAF organizations can better develop their acquisition professionals in addition to building partnerships, and enhancing collaboration, transparency, and communication between local industry and USAF organizations. The costs associated with such local EWI type programs would be considerably less because selected members would not require a PCS and could maintain some relative stability at home, while learning through experience with industry. Commanders and/or PEOs should be empowered to balance the risk to mission versus professional development by adjusting the length of time of the program (in partnership with the company) and selecting the participants. By allowing and encouraging EWI at the local level, the USAF would begin increasing the quality and experience of its future acquisition leaders, build better partnerships with industry, and have greater access to innovation, new technologies, and best practices.

Alternatively, the AFIT EWI program managers could help establish the partnerships while local commanders and PEOs select individuals for those educational opportunities. For example, Hanscom Air Force Base (AFB) is located near Boston, Massachusetts, one of the major innovation hubs in the United States with companies both large and small, established and just starting-up. Additionally, Hanscom AFB’s primary mission is acquisition and employs tens of thousands of acquisition professionals while typically receiving hundreds of new acquisition professionals, both military and civil service, annually. These Airmen, both military and civil service, already live in the area, would not require PCSs, dislocation allowances, or other major monetary incentives, yet they would still be able to gain the immense cultural benefits few others receive as part of the formal EWI program run by SAF/AQH and AFIT. Additionally, these companies would receive talented individuals capable of assisting in a variety of their operations at no cost. The company could learn about DOD and USAF acquisition while the USAF employee would have an opportunity to build a strong cultural foundation to bring back to the Air Force. In turn local commanders and PEOs gain a more experienced acquisition professional equipped with different perspectives, ideas, and competencies. The USAF must allow, encourage, and assist in creating more local EWI-type programs to facilitate the development of acquisition professionals across the USAF.

Building on Success
The USAF must expand use of the “Ghost Program” model to provide more acquisition professionals experience in fast-paced organizations, critical technologies, or key acquisition functional areas to enhance their development as acquisition leaders. In 2008, United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) Special Operations Forces Acquisition, Technology & Logistics (SOF AT&L) created the “Ghost Program” which provides young acquisition professionals valuable experience in executing fast-paced acquisition programs. The Ghost Program exposes young USAF acquisition professionals to an acquisition culture that values risk-taking, initiative, and delivering capability to the warfighter with speed. The Ghost Program brings in approximately 12 young acquisition professionals or “Ghosts” (both Active Duty and government civilian) per year from across the USAF’s acquisition community. During the 120-day program, SOF AT&L assigns the Ghosts to various continental US locations to assist in developing and fielding capability to SOF. Active duty Ghosts also use the first 80 days to prepare for an approximately 40-day deployment downrange as a liaison between deployed SOF and SOF AT&L to bridge the operators and acquisition program offices. As SOF AT&L’s culture values fielding capability to the user quickly, they use the Ghosts to facilitate any modification, sustainment, logistical, or performance requests from the operators through direct interactions. These relationships, interactions, and opportunities greatly enhance a Ghost’s understanding of the operational community’s needs, culture, processes, and how the differing roles impact the acquisition system. As a function of the Ghost Program, SOF AT&L inculcates Ghosts into its culture of rapid acquisition. This culture, in turn, slowly permeates across the USAF acquisition community as Ghosts disperse back into DOD acquisition organizations at the end of their rotation. Additionally, Ghosts expand their professional network with other graduated Ghosts, creating a community of acquisition professionals capable of sharing lessons learned, strategies, and ideas to improve other acquisition organizations and programs. SOF AT&L receives a return on their investment as these Ghosts bring their talents, experiences, and perspectives to its mission.

The USAF should partner with DOD and other Federal organizations to create “Ghost”-like deployment opportunities to “rapid” organizations, organizations in key cross-cutting technology areas, Federally Funded Research Development Centers (FFRDCs), and experimental and prototyping organizations. Many of DOD’s senior leaders have lauded the Ghost Program in its efforts to spread SOF AT&L’s “rapid” acquisition culture. While this program has been on-going for over 10 years now, its small throughput means only about a hundred acquisition professionals have gone through the program over its 10 years. The USAF and DOD can leverage the Ghost program model. In fact, the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) is piloting a program to do just that. DIUx will bring in DOD acquisition professionals from across the Department to experience their processes and culture and learn how they interact with non-traditional defense companies.

In 2018, the DIUx will pilot a program to select acquisition professionals from across the DOD for a 3-month temporary duty assignment at the DIUx office in Silicon Valley, California. The primary purpose of the program is “to introduce experienced acquisition professionals to the DIUx methodologies, and the legal framework on which they are based.” The program’s intent is that the participants, aptly named HACQers, “will then be able to take the experience and knowledge gained with us to return to their home units ready to fold in the use of Other Transactions into the way they do business.” By immersing acquisition professionals into their organization and operating concept, DIUx hopes to spread an “understanding [of] the culture, language, and contract formulation preferential to non-traditional start-up vendors” to “greatly assist in the DoD’s ability to bring these people and their innovations to our warfighters.” Innovation is undoubtedly critical to the future USAF’s lethality and we must look to and leverage organizations that attempt to gain a foot-hold in innovative markets like DIUx and spread that knowledge, experience, and culture across the USAF.

The USAF can similarly execute a temporary duty assignment at other locations throughout the USAF and DOD. Recently, the USAF created an organization called AFWERX. AFWERX’s mission, among others, is “connecting innovators and accelerating results,” at locations in Las Vegas, Nevada, and Washington D.C. with plans to open a location in Boston, MA. Like DIUx, the USAF and AFWERX should create a program in which acquisition professionals across the Service spend three to six months supporting AFWERX in their mission. This would benefit AFWERX by providing motivated individuals with different perspectives, experience, and ideas to support their mission. The individual, in turn, would learn about innovation, new technologies, risk-taking, how to work with small, non-traditional defense companies, and a culture different from most traditional acquisition offices. The individuals home unit would gain a more experienced, well-rounded acquisition professional more knowledgeable in other process and avenues to accomplish the acquisition mission. The long-term goal for this and similar programs is to make tomorrow’s traditional acquisition office look like today’s non-traditional, rapid organizations.

AFWERX is not the only type of organization that the USAF should leverage to better develop acquisition professionals. Organizations within the USAF like AFRL’s Rapid Reaction Team, Rapid Capabilities Office, Big Safari, FFRDCs, prototyping units, and many others can provide unique experiences and help develop our future acquisition leaders as the organization’s mission allows. Again, the program should not be limited those units who perform “rapid” acquisition activities but expand into other areas like those in key technologies areas that cross many functional and mission areas. For instance, artificial intelligence (AI) is a new and increasingly important technology with applications that reach across every mission area in the USAF and DOD. Partnerships with organizations like the DOD AI Center or DARPA would enhance the USAF’s position in this key technological area. The USAF can apply the same concept to key functional areas like developmental or operational test. Acquisition professionals without test experience could work for and with a test organization and learn their processes, perspectives, and culture.

By creating exchanges and Ghost-like programs, acquisition professionals could learn and experience key cultures across the USAF and DOD acquisition enterprise and bring those lessons back to their units. This can also be done at the local installation level at some locations allowing minimum investment while leveraging the luxury of co-located units. For example, Hanscom AFB could build an exchange with DIUx Boston or an FFRDC like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Labs (MIT-LL) or program managers at Eglin AFB, FL, could spend four months in a developmental test squadron across the street. Furthermore, the Secretary of the Air Force (SecAF) and the CSAF recently signed a “Rapid Acquisition Charter” which outlines the framework for the SecAF and CSAF to designate certain programs as “Rapid Procurement” which in turn provides PEOs with certain authorities to create streamlined program offices and project teams to assist in ensuring high-priority programs have a higher probability of success.

These designated programs are potential avenues to assist in developing acquisition professionals by, mission permitting, sending individuals to participate with these teams for three or four-month periods. Programs designated under this charter will share some of the same key operating principles of established “rapid” organizations. These principles include small, empowered teams, hand-picked personnel, streamlined report chains with direct access to key decision-makers, and prominent warfighter involvement early and often. There are quite a few ways to develop Ghost-like programs and the relatively small investments could pay big dividends down the road. The key to using the Ghost model is finding the right type of organizations where their culture represents the positive change the USAF and DOD desperately need. The concept of using “rapid” programs to develop the acquisition workforce is not a new concept, as previously mentioned, it is just one the USAF has yet to formally adopt.

USAF and DOD “Challenge” Programs
Another program model the USAF should leverage is the AFRL’s “Commander’s Challenge” which encourages risk-taking, allows for failure, and promotes innovation. Started around 2008, the AFRL Commander’s Challenge tasks multiple teams of junior military and civil service acquisition professionals and pits them in a competition to solve a tough DOD problem. The program’s overarching goal is to get the diverse set of junior personnel “that start-to-finish experience with the acquisition cycle [by going] from an idea, whiteboard design to a demo in six months…a very short schedule and [with] a very small budget.” While the premise of the program is focused on attacking DOD problems, the real value is seen in how the program affects the junior acquisition professionals. Participants in the program learn valuable skills in responsible risk-taking, collaboration, and personal initiative in their pursuit of rapid and meaningful innovation. As the commander of AFRL told participants at the 2018 awards banquet, “by far, the more important return on investment is all of you. All of you have just gone through this six-month experience [and] I ask you, I beg you, to please take this with you and help move the needle and make a difference with respect to our Air Force, bringing innovation and how we can do things differently.” This program is another example of how the DOD and USAF can better develop acquisition professionals through 3-6 month programs aimed at developing the right culture across the USAF through experience.

These benefits have not gone unnoticed as another USAF program is leveraging this concept to great effect. In 2016, the USAF started a new development course called the Advanced Tactical Acquisition Corps (ATAC) program which has a distinct focus on leadership development and cultural change. While still relatively new, the program represents a significant investment in both military and civil service acquisition professionals who have demonstrated leadership potential. The ATAC program brings in approximately seven to eight individuals from different acquisition-related career fields across Air Force Materiel Command for a three-month program that charges selected individuals “to develop solutions to the biggest problems in military procurement.” The program gives selected individuals a challenge sponsored by a senior USAF acquisition leader, and using site visits, studies, mentoring, courses, and critical thinking, the team develops recommendations. The ATAC program adds tremendous value by providing selected individuals with insights and experience that go well beyond a classroom.

The DOD and USAF have other examples of “Challenge” programs that are sprouting up, grabbing traction, and producing results. Hackers for Defense, Hacking the Air Force, and other similar programs are challenges that invite participants from across the world in attempt to solve or find potential issues, vulnerabilities, and capability gaps. Similarly, the success of these programs relies on their ability to leverage diverse organizations and their cultures helping participants accelerate learning through participating in the challenge. The USAF and DOD should continue to embrace these challenge events, expand the opportunities, and make it easier to bring folks from inside and outside DOD to participate.

Contrary to popular belief, the Defense Acquisition System can effectively and efficiently deliver capability to the warfighter. The USAF Acquisition system is subjected to rules, regulations, guidance, politics, and many outside influences that affect its ability to execute the acquisition mission. Many of these are beyond the control of the USAF (and DOD for that matter), but one thing the USAF can directly influence and try to change is the culture within its acquisition units. To continue improving, USAF must take a risk and invest in the development of acquisition professionals by expanding use of three experience-based program models to give more acquisition professionals experience in the type of culture the USAF and DOD needs. The benefits of doing so are wide, from better developed acquisition leaders to more and better partnerships collaboration, higher retention, and more effective program execution. These benefits outweigh the potential costs or risks if implemented correctly. To foster rapid and meaningful innovation, responsible risk-taking, collaboration, and personal initiative, the USAF should think differently in how it develops its acquisition professionals. If the USAF maintains the status quo, it should not expect more innovation, quicker delivery of capabilities, or a better performing acquisition system if USAF leadership is not willing to innovate and change the culture within the acquisition community itself. As the Vice CSAF General Stephen Wilson said of the culture within the Acquisition community, “we know we have to change” and how we do business recognizing the USAF and DOD must “change this culture.” Our nation’s security requires it, the strategy supports it, our warfighters demand it, and the acquisition community needs it. As General Goldfein is fond of saying, “fight’s on!”

Major Gabriel Almodovar is an acquisitions officer in the United States Air Force. He is a 2018 graduate of Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell AFB, Alabama. 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the US government. 

Excerpt: A cultural reform in DOD acquisitions and USAF professional development is critical to timely delivery of capability to the warfighter.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply