Selva Says DOD Must Get Flexible with Acquisition Regulations

Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks at an AFA-sponsored, Air Force breakfast on April 13, 2017. Staff photo by McKinnon Pearse.

The US military needs to get better at using existing acquisition regulations more flexibly, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Paul Selva said Thursday. Instead of adding new ideas to make the system better, “we have got to figure out how to use all the authorities we have,” he told the audience at an AFA-sponsored, Air Force event in Arlington, Va., on Thursday.

As Vice Chairman of the JCS, Selva also chairs the Joint Requirements Oversight Council, one of the most influential DOD bodies for making acquisition-related decisions. The massive “tome” of the Defense Federal Acquisition Regulation (DFAR), he said, is not “an impediment,” as he used to see it. “It’s imminently flexible.” DOD needs to stay out of “the middle path” in DFAR, “where there is no risk.”

This safe journey through the regulations is the biggest problem with DOD acquisition, Selva said. “We do not take advantage of the corners of the DFAR, and as a result, innovation happens slowly” and “we spend money badly.” The most risk-averse route through the DFAR, he said, is also the one that will “doom us to spend money on things we might not need any more.”

Recently DOD “spent about $40 million on a piece of software that does a survey of all of our intelligence data to find patterns,” Selva said. Despite the success of the program at that cost, “the initial estimate for being able to do that was in the billions.” Believing they could find a way to do better, “a small group of people that worked in the Joint Staff” searched the regulations and “they found a corner of the DFAR where they were very comfortable.”

This big data group at the Pentagon ended up working with “a series of companies that do this kind of work in the civilian world.” They were an unusual set of workers for DOD. “These are kids that wear flip-flops, worn-out jeans, and bleached t-shirts to work every day…but they’re incredibly bright,” Selva said.

When the contractors were concerned about access to classified data, Selva told them, “if you can show us that you’re capable of pulling patterns out of large data sets… we will let you swim in decades of classified intelligence data.” And while “there isn’t a chapter in the DFAR on how to do that,” Selva said the team became practiced at making DFAR work to accomplish the goal at hand.

Another strategy within existing rules is paying attention to the $100 million line, Selva said. When contractors bring programs to the department, “as soon as it says $100 million, programmers become interested, auditors become interested,” and everyone wants to have their say, which slows down the acquisition process. But “if it’s less than $99 million, it’s sort of in the noise,” said the vice chairman. As such, he encouraged contractors to bring new programs to him below that psychological fiscal threshold. “If you can get me a base capability for less than that, we all win,” he said.