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Air Force looks to be best in acquisition

By Staff Sgt. C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (Jan. 12, 2006) -- The Air Force hopes to be the model within the Department of Defense for how best to procure goods and acquire weapons systems.

"Five years from now, (we want) people to consider the Air Force the premier acquisition service in the DOD ... that we are heads and shoulders above everybody else in how we buy products and deliver products to the warfighter," said Kenneth Miller, special assistant to the secretary of the Air Force for acquisition governance and transparency.

Much of the responsibility of getting the Air Force to that point will fall on the shoulders of Mr. Miller, who was hired in September. Though he doesn't work in Air Force acquisition, he has nearly 30 years of experience in Navy acquisition.

Mr. Miller says achieving premier acquisition status will require the Air Force to make a commitment to acquisition governance and transparency.

"A lot of people ask me, ‘What do you really mean by governance on the acquisition side?’" he said. "What we are looking at is trying to make sure, from a process standpoint, that we have a way of learning how we do our business across the entire Air Force."

If the acquisition community at one installation is doing something well, that needs to be shared across the Air Force so all those in acquisition can benefit, he said.

"We have a lot of different pieces across the Air Force that do acquisition today," he said. "But we don't have a very good process to glean the goodness that may be going on in one activity, and share that across the board. So we are going to be looking at some integrating processes for the future."

While acquisition governance is about spreading good ideas within the Air Force, transparency is about letting those on the outside know how the service is purchasing of goods, services and weapons systems.

"We want to be real clear on what we are doing, and to be very honest and open with the way we are looking at our acquisition business," Mr. Miller said. "But one of the challenges we have in the Air Force right now is that our overall credibility with sharing information and being forthright in where we are in procurement has really suffered greatly."

In the past several years, the Air Force has experienced credibility problems on Capitol Hill that involve such things as the replacement for the KC-135 Stratotanker and the C-130 Hercules modification project, he said.

While Mr. Miller said it might not be possible to completely eliminate the circumstances that created some of those problems, it is the service's responsibility to recognize those problems earlier and take actions to correct them.

"One of the big challenges for DOD and Congress is the right degree of oversight and review you have in the future, especially on ethics, people and standards and how they approach disclosure," Mr. Miller said. "I don’t think you will ever get away from where your people make mistakes ... (but) what is important is that you have an adequate set of processes in place to recognize them."

Mr. Miller's role within the Air Force would be to help develop those processes.

"In order to improve our overall credibility, we are going the extra mile in trying to be more open and engaging, more proactive, and preemptive in how we do acquisition business," he said.

Part of that effort is making sure the Air Force is the first to spread news about itself, whether that news is good or bad. If the Air Force were in the process of developing a weapons system, for example, and the system experienced failures during testing and evaluation, Mr. Miller said it would be best to pass that information on as soon as possible to Capitol Hill and the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

"In the past, we would try to be very deliberate about getting as much information as possible before we start to share with people what had happened," he said. "The problem with that is we have found that our competitors, or people who are not supportive of a certain program, find out about bad news as fast as anybody."

Those people then pass bad news to Congress, OSD or the media, before the Air Force has gathered all its information.

"Almost immediately our credibility is at zero, because (Congress) heard about our problem two or three weeks before we gave them all the information," Mr. Miller said.

One solution to that problem is to understand that it is ok for the Air Force to begin sharing information even before it has all the facts, or even has a completely right answer, Mr. Miller said.

"In this business (with) the complexity of the things we are dealing with, the first answer is not always the total answer," Mr. Miller said. "It is about 80 percent right. The big challenge I have had is telling people that it is ok to share information that is 80 percent right -- but understand it is not the last time I will talk to you about a particular issue."

Being able to share information as soon as it happens, rather than waiting to gather facts that can come later, allows the Air Force to establish greater credibility with Congress and the American people, he said.

"So instead of waiting, we will be the first to tell you, and we will tell you the facts, the way we see it today," he said. "What we are trying to establish with our stakeholders is a credible dialogue back and forth. I will communicate with you on a routine basis on the progress we are having on a program, so people know what we are doing."