GAO: Agency acquisition policies could improve product development principles

Together, the Departments of Defense (DOD) and Homeland Security (DHS) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) invest hundreds of billions of dollars each year to develop and supply a wide range of systems, from stealth jets to lunar rovers.

Great companies rely on certain principles to ensure successful product development. But the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found that these federal agencies are generally not required to adhere to these principles.

According to the GAO, leading companies take a disciplined approach to developing innovative products that meet the needs of their customers and to deliver them to market on time and within planned costs. The top 13 companies surveyed by GAO perform similar activities when developing new products, such as iterative design in hardware and software development. These development process activities align with the four key principles that help project teams bring innovative products to market quickly and effectively. GAO has found that the department-wide acquisition policies of DOD, DHS, and NASA implement certain key product development principles. But, they still have to fully implement others. The government watchdog says this gap prevents agencies from ensuring a consistent approach to developing and delivering products quickly and efficiently.

Large companies focus on designing a minimum marketable product, with the minimum capabilities necessary for customers to recognize the value. They also prioritize a project’s schedule: they release the most customer-critical features and extend non-critical product features (an industry term for removing them from the current release) as needed, in order to stick to the schedule. Additionally, large companies have mechanisms in place to solicit and implement customer feedback early and often throughout development to ensure the product is responsive to customer needs, among other things.

GAO has found that the major acquisition policies of DOD, DHS, and NASA incorporate many aspects of the four key principles, to varying degrees. However, the watchdog notes that agencies are missing opportunities for positive outcomes by not addressing certain sub-principles in their policies.

According to GAO:

  • DOD policies do not require all programs to consider non-critical ramp capabilities in order to stay on schedule, hampering the programs’ best chance of maintaining timelines.
  • DHS policies do not require all programs to use modern design tools during hardware and software development, which limits ongoing opportunities for programs to successfully improve design reviews.
  • NASA policies do not include mechanisms for programs to obtain and use product feedback from stakeholders or end users – such as astronauts operating spacecraft or the scientific community benefiting from research projects. NASA – to identify challenges or new features to include in future projects.

GAO makes nine recommendations to DOD, DHS, and NASA to update acquisition policies to fully implement key product development principles. All three organizations agreed with the recommendations.

Read the full report on GAO

Gary C. Lisi