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Department of Defense is creating a ‘SWAT team’ to help speed up software acquisition

It’s been four years since the Department of Defense created six new acquisition pathways — including one specifically designed to accelerate software acquisition. But as is often the case with policy reforms, implementation is off to a slow start, so officials are building a cadre of software experts at the Pentagon to help speed up implementation.

The Department of Defense created a software acquisition pathway as part of a broader modernization to make the acquisition system more “tailored” to the specific products or services the department purchases. In particular, the software path arose from the recognition that most of the Department of Defense’s traditional approaches were geared toward large weapons systems. It is designed to encourage rapid development and close coordination with users, and eliminates some steps in the traditional acquisition process that don’t make sense for software.

Cara Abercrombie, assistant secretary of defense for acquisition, said she has heard positive feedback from program managers across the military service, but they don’t always feel comfortable taking advantage of the new path.

“They love it. They want to use it in a more expansive way,” she said Thursday during an annual research symposium at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. “But I feel like there’s a little risk aversion and a little bit of fear in the system because everything it works quickly and doesn’t have to check the same options as other acquisition paths, and I really think there can often be a reluctance to use it.

To date, only about 50 programs have used the software acquisition route

According to the Government Accountability Office, there are only about 50 programs across the DoD that use the software track. In a report last summer, the GAO also found that software-intensive programs that do not use a software path typically do not benefit from modern, agile development methodologies.

But Abercrombie said the Department of Defense wants to drive wider adoption and is doing so establishment specialized staff of software experts in your office.

“It will be a team of experts who know how to use the software path, who know how to apply agile acquisition strategies,” she said. “We’ll make sure it’s more or less a SWAT team, so to speak, that can parachute into the program offices to provide desk support and help the program office teams navigate a successful software development path. We also need to do forensic analysis to understand why there hasn’t been wider adoption, but I suspect part of that is because it’s so different to what we’ve done before.”

Congress mandated this new software development cadre in the fiscal 2022 defense authorization bill. Lawmakers also directed the Department of Defense to create a dedicated software specialist career track to help develop this group of experts and transform technically skilled military members into domain experts. software.

The military services are also striving for change

Meanwhile, the military services are working on their own to take full advantage of the software path. In March, for example, the Army issued a policy that directed acquisition workers to “maximize” their use of the software track and transition to industry best practices in software development.

In an April interview with Federal News Network, Margaret Boatner, deputy assistant secretary of the Army for strategy and acquisition reform, said the service had used this route in only 11 programs so far, but officials saw clear benefits.

“Starting a program on the software track requires much less documentation and review. But more importantly, it actually requires us to use modern software practices. This is not an option; we need to use agile, lean DevSecOps, continuous integration and continuous delivery of these types of things,” she said. “Traditionally, if you look at our software systems, we’ve published performance declines every three to four years. We currently have software track programs that deliver every 12 months, every nine months, and try to deliver opportunities every six months. Sure, it’s not as fast as the industry, but it’s absolute progress.

A separate challenge: software financing

But even if this path helps solve some of the problems with the Department of Defense acquisition process, it will not improve the way Congress and its department fund software development.

Currently, program managers must navigate complex legal hurdles to determine whether specific aspects of their programs must be funded through procurement, research and development, or operations and maintenance accounts. Congress has approved a pilot program that allows officials to fund software with just one color of money — and program managers love that approach, too — but lawmakers have only approved six pilot programs so far.

In its final report in March, the Congressional Committee on Planning, Programming, Budgeting, and Executive Reform concluded that Congress must extend the single-color money concept to all Department of Defense programs.

“I have had to participate in reprogramming activities where money is exchanged between assets just because of the way (an aspect of the program) is defined” – Elizabeth Bieri, the commission’s research director and former Department of Defense chief financial officer clerk, he said Thursday at the NPS symposium. “Well, it’s really not that different. I think back to the years when you had to use purchases to buy all the IT equipment, and now it’s just money from operation and maintenance. It would simply be a continuation of the way people work today and a continuation of the evolution of software. If I change the code because of a bug fix, how is that different from enabling something to get new interoperability features? I think if you combine all of these things, you’ll be able to make the changes you need when you need to, without arbitrary coupling.”

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