PEO Digital talks acquisition transformation

  • Published
  • By Patty Welsh
  • 66th Air Base Group Public Affairs

HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. – The program executive officer for Digital spoke about the paradigm shift in Defense Department and Air Force acquisition, including how it’s impacting his organization, during a Hanscom Representatives Association meeting Sept. 4 in Lexington, Massachusetts.

“Things are changing rapidly,” said Steve Wert. “If you like chaos, come work in DOD acquisition right now. It is absolutely wild.”

Wert said that the Air Force is “hugely” changing strategy by including outside influencers, such as the Defense Innovation Board, Defense Innovation Unit, and Defense Digital Services, in planning. Senior AF leaders are talking with industry executives for their knowledge. PEOs have unprecedented delegations of authority; for example, within Wert’s hundreds of programs in his portfolio, only six currently go to the Air Force Service Acquisition Executive for milestone decision authority.

The shift for PEO Digital stemmed from the implementation of Agile DevOps through Kessel Run, Wert said, and now he is not approving acquisition strategies for software if they do not include Agile DevOps. However, the initial implementation really began a trend to employ new concepts across the portfolio.

PEO Digital participated in the first-ever AF Pitch Day, which was an idea the AF SAE Dr. Will Roper had to get non-traditional organizations to interact with the Air Force and be able to get a good idea on contract quickly. While 51 contracts were awarded among the three participating PEOs, Wert said he thought some of the biggest benefits came from personnel being re-energized about their work and the exposure to novel ideas.

Following the event, a positive note from Roper to the Chief of Staff of the Air Force had the Chief asking when the AF could hold one for counter-small unmanned aerial systems, which are within Wert’s portfolio. Therefore, PEO Digital held the Air Force’s second Pitch Day in July. The organization also held a Pitch Day for Kessel Run. Through those Pitch Days, PEO Digital is now working with 37 startups.

Wert said DOD 5000, the Defense Acquisition System Instruction, is being re-written and Defense Acquisition University is revising training. The new strategy is demanding speed, innovation and technology and one way the Air Force is doing that is by working with technology accelerators and startups and building new partnerships.

“We can do amazing things when we partner with organizations such as MassChallenge,” said Wert. “We’re able to have events we couldn’t do as government alone.”

Talking about what’s next though, Wert commented that he’s realizing the Air Force is falling behind. He recently participated in judging for a second round of pitches for MassChallenge and said every pitch incorporated machine learning. This enabled him to recognize that the AF is not using available commercial technology, such as neuromorphic processing chips.

“We don’t think like this,” he said. “We’ve been simply responding to requirements. We need to adjust our thinking.”

Wert added that no part of the traditional acquisition process had them thinking about what system could be versus what it currently is.

“We need to be a [science and technology] organization,” he said. “We’ve been neglecting it but it’s part of the life cycle.”

As his challenge for his organization for 2020 is to “accelerate technology adoption,” Wert said to the mostly industry attendees that’s where they fit in. “We’ll need help from folks like you; we’ll also look to leverage the labs and small businesses.”

He noted that Roper said it’s not that Air Force acquisition wants to go fast; it’s that the Air Force wants to go fast.

“We need to be creative and accept some risks in some situations. The environment is amazing. I like chaos; it provides the opportunity to press the edge.”