June 26th, 2008

Sisyphus sign

Engineers Avoiding Government Work

The New York Times discovered that the nation's best engineers are avoiding government projects. Well, sure. I'd be doing commercial work if I had applicable skills. Alas, I've been in the government tarpit for so long I suspect I may never get out.

The article covers the reasons for avoiding government projects on the individual level but completely misses the top-level causes. Yes, projects take too long, waste lots of time, and fall behind the state of the art. But saying "bad management" just begs the question of why with so many successes in the past things keep getting worse (note that the article focuses on military projects, but the problems apply to all big government development efforts).

Most government projects--and all the big ones--aren't about building something. They're about giving Congressmen pork to bring home, giving the bureaucracy something to process, and keeping companies in business. The actual mission is merely a pretext. It has to be a good pretext to bring in votes from Congressmen not getting slices of the pork but it's still just a pretext. The bring-in-votes goal leads to pretexts that sound good rather than actually being useful for the people down in the mud (or wherever the users hang out).

Once funding is approved and the whole thing starts to slide downhill the top priority is ensuring that the butts of all managers associated with it are completely covered. So anyone who might complain gets to add their requirements to the list. Committees are formed to diffuse responsibility for the specs and architecture. Any delay or confusing rewrite is preferable to getting caught in a mistake. Bids get protested and redone until the lawyers can't come up with any more excuses to quibble. Finally a contract is awarded.

And then some poor, sorry SOB gets the responsibility for building the thing. The requirements are the wish list of everyone who could fit at the table. The budget is what Congress was willing to carve out of the other pork projects. The deployment schedule was set to the earliest possible date after the retirements of the proposal team leaders. The engineers who did the preliminary designs are all chasing other contracts. So with limited resources the new project manager has to create a team from scratch and teach them what they're supposed to make.

With all those constraints on him the PM's only real decision authority is over the order that the stakeholders will get fucked over. Congress goes to the end of that list, of course. Piss them off and the program's gone. The bureaucrats, users, and anyone else Congress will listen to go to second-to-last. First on the fuck-over list? Why, his engineering team trying to build the thing, of course. It's not like he can realistically pick anyone else.

Can this happen to commercial projects? Sure it has. If the back story of Windows Vista ever comes out it might look a lot like that with the appropriate names changed. But commercial projects always have one very sharp constraint--someone outside the company has to be willing to give money for this product as a user, advertiser, or whatever. If the customers stop buying the company goes bankrupt. If a government contractor produces a horrible product the troops get issued it anyway . . . or have to keep duct taping the old ones together even if that costs more than replacing them.

If the government completely redid its procurement system it would probably get better results. The engineers working on the projects would certainly be happier. McCain's battery prize proposal could be a step in that direction. But the current system is just going to keep accumulating more sludge in the arteries and smart young engineers will be staying the hell away.