Defense contracting netted $15 billion for Washington state in the last three years.
IN 2004, the U.S. Air Force had a good idea to streamline more than 200 computer systems into a single entity to help with coordination, security and accountability. A few years later, the bold idea had fizzled out — but only after eating up more than a billion dollars in taxpayer funds and producing questions from the leaders of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee. This isn’t the only example of a dead end at the U.S. Department of Defense. This is just another chapter in a broken acquisition process.
Every day the Pentagon buys equipment, machines and goods for our military. Unfortunately, it’s a system fraught with problems. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the average delay for a major program is 28 months. A Washington Post story last year also cited a dozen programs between 2001 and 2011 that cost $46 billion and didn’t see the light of day.
It’s time we demand a better, smarter government. By making changes to this process we can maximize the capabilities and strengths of our military — to ensure it is the best equipped in the world.
Fixing this can also be important for our economy. The defense sector is an economic driver in our state. Joint Base Lewis-McChord and Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor combine for more than $12 billion in economic impact. According to the state Department of Commerce, roughly 2,000 Washington state businesses work with the military and they netted more than $15 billion in contracts in the last three years.
But many of these businesses, in particular the smaller firms and entrepreneurs, are looking to get out. The U.S. Defense Department isn’t the reliable and predictable partner local businesses need. Over the years, the acquisition process has become more complicated and costly to the point where it doesn’t work for vendors, for the Defense Department or for our service members.
An opportunity arose last year when the chair of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee, Mac Thornberry, along with ranking member U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Bellevue, launched a new effort to get acquisition reform under way. As a co-chair of the New Democrat Coalition’s National Security Task Force, I worked with folks from around the country to make recommendations to fix this system.
Our recommendations focused on five themes:
• Ending sequestration: In my view, sequestration is a Latin word for stupid. Across-the-board cuts lead the Pentagon to scramble for savings now and lose focus on long-term investments that could save money in the future.
• Making government a better customer to businesses: The Pentagon should have clear rules of the road so our businesses in the private sector have a good idea of what they need and when they need it.
• Empowering and enhancing the acquisition workforce: The key to an effective workforce is to provide workers with training and the time to make smart decisions.
• Improving management, administration and accountability: We need a system that provides positive incentives to our workers for a job well done as opposed to adding more paperwork to their load.
• Culture changes for long-term success: We need to stop slapping Band-Aids on our problem. It’s time to encourage acquisition professionals to focus on lasting solutions, not quick fixes.
Thornberry has introduced legislation inspired by some of the ideas we’ve been talking about. It’s part of a six-year process that would see us take swings at the problem each year. This year starts with the acquisition workforce — looking at how we reduce the red tape workers tangle with and giving them more freedom to make smart and informed decisions.
Business as usual has cost U.S. taxpayers, continued programs that stop at dead ends and overburdened workers while befuddling Washington state entrepreneurs. That’s not acceptable.
True reform won’t happen overnight, but I’m committed to working with Democrats and Republicans to make a system that’s more effective, responsible and worthy of the men and women who serve our country.