Section 809 Panel Chair Calls for Bold Ideas

By Ryan Burke, Senior Editor, National Contract Management Association
December 19, 2016
Today, a great deal of emphasis is being placed on defense acquisition reform, to a degree not seen in years. Many challenges are shared across Department of Defense (DOD) components, including cumbersome processes that slow our ability to get product to user and weapon to warfighter, stagnant requirements that prevent us from taking advantage of technological change, and systemic budgeting issues that don’t allow for flexibility in procurement.

We were pleased to welcome a number of Section 809 panelists at the 35th Annual Government Contract Management Symposium, and were fortunate enough to sit down with Deidre Lee, chairman of the panel, and Terry Raney, panelist and NCMA president, to chat about the purpose of the panel, the challenges it has been tasked with analyzing, and where to go from here.

What is the Section 809 Panel?
Section 809 of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2016 mandated the creation of a panel—composed of experts in acquisition and procurement policy with diverse experience in both the public and private sectors—to examine the current defense acquisition processes and provide recommendations to streamline and improve its efficiency and effectiveness in order to maintain the United States’ defense technology advantage. This mandate includes the creation of recommendations for the amendment or repeal of regulations.

The Section 809 panel is similar in structure to the Section 800 panel from 1993, which is credited with recommending significant acquisition reforms subsequently enacted by Congress, including the Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act and the creation of Federal Acquisition Regulation Part 12, “Acquisition of Commercial Items.” Similarly, the Section 809 panel is looking for bold transformational changes that serve the customer—primarily the warfighter in the field, but also those who serve them— the Senior Executive Service member who needs an innovative study, the action officer who could use a new software platform, the tiger team that needs a collaboration tool. Cost and time need not be inversely related—the system can be both fast and cost effective, providing maximum value for money, and items that are fit for purpose.

While the focus of the Section 809 panel is solely on the DOD acquisition system, the panel recognizes that DOD operates in the larger federal acquisition system. As such, many of the challenges DOD faces are systemic to the entire federal acquisition process. The panel will be looking at regulations, statutes, and the overall system itself.

What Will the Section 809 Panel Do?

The panel has two years to deliver its report to DOD and to Congress, and the 18 commissioners are looking at the following six initial focus areas:

• Examining statutes and regulations to enable a more efficient acquisition process,
• Simplified buying,
• Commercial items,
• Why commercial companies don’t do business with DOD,
• Key factors in successful acquisitions, and
• A framework for success.

One of the fundamental challenges faced by the defense acquisition community is the turnaround time the current system takes from requirements definition to delivery. “If it takes 18 months to conduct a source selection for a piece of technology, has anything changed with this technology in the past year and a half?” said Lee. “By the time you actually award the contract, are you receiving current technology in return?”

“We have an acquisition infrastructure in place, but the market for technology changes much more rapidly than this framework seems to be able to keep up with,” said Raney. “Is this because of disconnects between the pieces of the infrastructure, or is there a better way to arrange it?”

Another challenge faced by the Section 809 panel is barriers to entry into the federal marketplace by nontraditional government contractors. “The technology that we need today—not tanks or trucks, but IT, cybersecurity solutions, and other capabilities—is needed by the commercial sector as much as it’s needed by DOD,” said Raney. “These companies that develop this technology worry about the compliance risk of government contracting.”

Anecdotally speaking, these companies appear to be deterred from contracting with the government because it “costs too much, takes too long, and it’s too high of a risk,” said Lee.

How Can YOU Help?
“The Section 809 panel is looking for bold ideas,” said Lee. Your expertise and thoughts are welcome—program and contract practitioners know what works and what doesn’t. You know what barriers you face. You have ideas for change, so please share them. “Don’t think of our current processes as the baseline from which to begin,” says Lee. “How should it be? We shouldn’t just accept what it is and tweak around the edges.” This is an opportunity to make tough, broad, necessary Twenty-first Century updates to the defense acquisition system and the profession as a whole.

“This is not an exercise to generate change at the margin,” says Raney. “It’s to fundamentally identify those things that can be done that will change the paradigm.”

For more information about the Section 809 panel and to submit your comments, observations, or suggestions for the future of the defense acquisition system, visit the panel’s official website at