When Elliott Branch envisions a naval ship, he doesn’t see a mass of steel and a tangle of complicated systems costing hundreds of millions of dollars, maybe more.
He sees the crews.
“I’m impressed not with the technology, but with the kids – and they are kids – that crew them. They volunteered for this, to give my kids a choice. I come in to work every day and thank them, grateful for what they volunteered to do.”
Work for Branch means the Pentagon, where he is deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for Acquisition and Procurement. He works for Sean Stackley, the assistant secretary for Research, Development and Acquisition (RDA). Branch describes himself as the “business guy”, providing contracting and contractor relationship support to the Navy’s acquisitions. “My role is to make sure the business deal supports the “vision” of an acquisition. Branch recently was named a finalist in the management category of the Service to America Medals, or Sammies, given annually by the Partnership for Public Service.
Branch, as one of eight deputy assistant secretaries, operates with a staff of 30. His group is responsible for ships and other large, complex systems for which the RDA has final authority, other acquisitions with value greater than $100 million, and purchasing policy guidance for the department.
Companies his group deals with supply everything from aircraft carriers to food supplies. For Branch, none of it is routine. “Very little is cookie-cutter about what we buy. When you start to think its simple, that’s when you get into trouble. You get complacent,” Branch said.
For his specialized staff, “the most important attribute is experience,” Branch said. “They should have been in contracting for a good piece of their life – negotiating, administering, overseeing contracts. Enough experience to see strategy briefings and have historical perspective; to look downstream and see possible consequences.”
He also values good interpersonal skills. “And imagination. In getting to a mutually agreeable strategy for a business deal, you need creativity,” he said.
The Navy works in a delicate ballet of opposition with the defense industrial base from which it buys everything from aircraft carriers to apples. It spends about $90 billion a year. What makes it a ballet is that for the big-ticket items the Navy doesn’t have scores of suppliers, but rather a limited number of a few major contractors. Branch’s Sammies nomination notes savings he achieved in the Littoral Combat Ship program, a good case in point.
The program ran into cost overruns and delays. It’s a long, tortured story. But the Navy simply had to come up with a new plan. Branch explained, the new strategy, launched in 2009, ended a plan to buy two different versions of the ships from two suppliers, and instead go the bake-off route.
“We told them the winner would get all the orders and the loser would go home,” Branch said. But as it turned out both suppliers – Austal USA (which also builds large yachts and ferries) and Lockheed Martin – both managed to come in under a congressionally-mandated price ceiling. Appropriators let the buy from both sources after all, on the reasoning that development costs for both ship versions were already sunk. The re-baselining, new strategy, and initial ship buys all took place in 14 months.
“Who we can buy from generally drives the strategy,” Branch said. But that doesn’t mean the Navy is at the mercy of its contractors. For example, the Navy took more than a passing interest when Northrop Grumman decided to spin off its Huntington Ingalls shipbuilding operations in 2011.
“We influenced the resources [Northrop Grumman] put in so it would be viable,” Branch said. Huntington’s Newport News Shipbuilding unit is constructing the first, multi-billion dollar Gerald R Ford class supercarrier. In 2011 it was about halfway through construction, scheduled for a 2015 delivery. So the corporate change was a critical matter to the Navy. The Gerald R. Ford is not a canoe, and the Navy can’t pick a supplier off the GSA schedule. Nor are warships simply vacation cruise ships painted gray.
“In general,” Branch said, “a company the size of Huntington Ingalls or any complex, long-cycle manufacturer has to have enough cash for working capital and to pay its bills and service on its debt.” The Navy helps with milestone and progress payments, but it can’t leave such a critical program to chance. That’s where Branch’s business acumen came into play ⎯ and was also cited in his Sammies nomination.
Branch describes himself as a devotee of public service, and noted his father spent 34 years with the Postal Service when it was still a cabinet agency. But he tries to lead a balanced life. “When I leave at 5:30 or 6 on a Friday afternoon, the Republic won’t fall, and the work will still be there on Monday,” he said.
While most of his career has been with the Navy Department in one job or another, he has worked out of the federal government. For several years in the administration of Mayor Anthony Williams, Branch was the District of Columbia’s chief procurement officer. He called it “one of my best professional experiences. This [Navy] job takes a lot of years to see the effects of what you do. In D.C. the returns were immediate. We bought schoolbooks for the kids, repaired streetlights.”
He added, “I also learned there really are two pieces to government – politics and governance. Governance is where I would rather be.”