No More “Low-Priced Brains” in Defense Planning
While the government decries the reduction in middle class income, it is that very same government that often drives a reduction in middle class income through the misguided use of competition intended to drive compensation downward. In so doing, governments treat brain power as a commodity, and do their best to procure the "lowest priced brains." First published in US Naval Institute Proceedings Today in July 2017. About ten years ago, a worrisome trend began in defense acquisition. It involved a procurement method referred to as “low priced technically acceptable,” or LPTA for short, invented for situations where a bare minimum standard of quality was needed, but where the Department of Defense (DOD) was unwilling to pay for improvement beyond that minimum. It was intended for simple commodity purchases, such as when DOD would want to procure acceptable quality toilet paper but felt there was no need to pay extra for an exquisite product. The problems began when some defense procurement officials began hijacking these methods to make it easier for them to contract out for knowledge-based services such as combatant commander (COCOM) operational planning, cybersecurity, engineering analysis, and design of some of the most sophisticated networks in the Department of Defense. I have never heard an operational commander say “Get me the lowest-priced minds you can find!” Still, what invariably ends up happening with an LPTA award is disappointment, often with reduced operational readiness resulting in early contract termination. If it is your intent to get the lowest tier of experience that barely meets minimum standards, then LPTA is for you. In so doing, they were treating brain-power as a commodity, procuring the “lowest-priced brains” to augment, for example, a COCOM staff planning operations against the next Osama bin Laden, or a unit defending operational networks against the next cyber attack. While we may not need anything more than a minimum standard for commodities, our adversaries will not be using their lowest-priced brains in mission planning. So why would the U.S. Defense Department contract for some of the most intense knowledge-based services this way? Simply put, LPTA makes life easier for the acquisition folks executing the procurement. Source selection becomes a test requiring no real analysis. To decide who wins, all the procurement official needs to do is answer one simple question: does the individual a contractor is proposing for a certain assignment meet a minimum standard of qualification? Yes or no. Beyond that, the contractor who offers the lowest price is awarded the contract. LPTA’s weakness is that it does not provide an option to measure quality. It relies on the least common denominator. One would presume that we need the best people we can find for knowledge-based work. Unfortunately, the one thing LPTA can guarantee is that the best people will be pushed away to programs where people are willing to pay for quality. I have never heard an operational commander say “Get me the lowest-priced minds you can find!” Still, what invariably ends up happening with an LPTA award is disappointment, often with reduced operational readiness resulting in early contract termination. If it is your intent to get the lowest tier of experience that barely meets minimum standards, then LPTA is for you. Senior DOD leaders have recognized that LPTA is causing readiness problems. There have been several initiatives to restrict its use to cases for which it was intended. Former Undersecretary of Defense Frank Kendall made it one of his major initiatives. But instead of implementing firm prohibitions, his policy outlined best practices to curtail LPTA’s use. Bureaucrats still found ways to easily circumvent these restrictions. Recognizing DOD’s failure to implement effective restrictions, a few years ago Congress decided (correctly) that it needed to act. Since then, several measures have been introduced in bills usually titled something like, “Promoting Value Based Procurement.” The problem is if you are a contractor with little or no experience in a certain area of government business that you want to break into, then you love LPTA because the barriers to entry into that line of business essentially are removed. Opposition has been sufficient to prevent any of these bills from being passed. Nevertheless, the forces for good are at it again this year. Representatives Mark Meadows (R-NC) and Don Beyer (D-VA) have again introduced a “Promoting Value Based Procurement Act of 2017,” which attempts to restrict the use of LPTA procurement methods. Unfortunately, this bill includes the following language: To the maximum extent practicable, the use of Lowest Price Technically Acceptable source selection criteria shall be avoided when the procurement is predominately for the acquisition of information technology services, systems engineering and technical assistance services, or other knowledge-based professional services. (Emphasis added.) The language bolded above provides a loophole through which one could drive a truck. Contractors and bureaucrats will use this exception with zeal and alacrity. This loophole ensures that, if passed, the bill will be no more effective than previous efforts to correct this dangerous practice. It is time to close the loopholes and give LPTA the deep six for knowledge-based work. Congress should craft a better bill that allows DOD to bring the brightest minds to bear on planning for the current and future fight.