Tuesday, July 7, 2009

47 years of government waste - the legacy of Robert McNamara

Robert McNamara served President John F. Kennedy as Secretary of Defense, and again as Sec of Defense under Lyndon B. Johnson. McNamara certainly didn't lose the Vietnam War by himself, but he didn't win it, either, and he didn't keep it from becoming a symbol of American patriotism and valor largely wasted.

A legacy of evil

McNamara was, however, indisputably the father of the $600 hammer, the golden toilet seat, and generations of overpriced government procurement.

McNamara invented today's "Federal Acquisition Regulations" that grew to encompass many fine careers, and to disillusion multitudes that wanted to see our armed services using the best equipment at reasonable prices.

If it isn't broke . . .

Robert "Bean Counter" McNamara changed the way the government bought things.

One of the astounding graces and strengths of America was the incredibly rapid way new weapons and equipment, from planes and ships to bombs, radios, and radars, went from concept to deployed in the field. Weapon makers and suppliers would visit the military offices, discuss what was needed, return with a prototype or 20, and get an order for a dozen or a thousand or more.

Leveraging car maker success to "improve" the government

Working in a era should have been aware of the ability to apply America's then-devastating might of industry to security problems, just after the Korean conflict, and during the explosion of the French fiasco in Vietnam to an American assistance, to an American hotbed of conflict - McNamara decided to apply accounting and automaker style "good business practices" to military procurement.

Evaluating business forms instead of working equipment

I recall being in St. Louis, MO, when Boeing was competing for a new fighter design, maybe the F-22. Their working prototype, their plane that flew, was rejected in favor of a competitor that won on the strength of their paperwork, and a design several years - and many millions of dollars - away from flying.

It looked good on paper

McNamara's claim was to open procurement to competition to keep prices down, to give competitors a "fair" access to all the pertinent requirements, to open the way for innovation and competition to provide the "best" design.

What really happened was to invent a new layer or three of bureaucracy build exclusively to manage the process of issuing requests for proposals, managing proposals received from potential suppliers, evaluating the proposals, selecting the provider, monitoring how the contract was performed, checking for required quality, and monitoring the conclusion, extensions, and more importantly, all the changes to the contract because what they ordered built wasn't what was needed.

Wasting resources to waste time to hide ineptness

Instead of relying on companies with skilled engineers, our current procurement process requires that the services and other entities in government use people skilled in capturing what is needed - three or four years in the future - into documented "requirements". Heaven forbid any competing contractor-candidate should use actual knowledge of what the customer needs. That might be unfair business practice, used to keep competitors out of the market.

Build a bigger empire, and you may not get caught

Then the government needed highly skilled people to do the business and contracting things - all highly skilled tasks.

And contractors don't just have to build quality planes and boats and toilets - they have to document, to the satisfaction of government program teams and FAR satisfaction that they meet the stated program requirements - not "what the customer needs", because that isn't the contract. The contract that is written is for the contractor to meet the requirements stated in the proposal.

And the first step is to have all interested contractors engineer a result, so that the government can compare the proposed solutions to the request for proposal.

It can literally cost $590 dollars for a contractor to engineer and perform required oversight, review, and documentation, to order a $10 hammer from Ace Hardware or the makers of Estes or Plumb hammers. Especially when it costs the contractor several hundred dollars to formally request clarification and documented answers to questions - like, do you want a hammer to build a house, or to fashion metal parts?

Waste in the name of blame-dodging

McNamara invented the notion that layers of paper-checking and previewing engineering - and having several independent teams of engineers wasting their time on unused solutions - was a useful application of American skill and talent. And money.

RIP, Robert McNamara, "May God bless and keep the Czar . . . far from Anatevka!"

I can't decide if I want to see McNamara buried with his legacy - on a golden toilet seat - or without, in a pine box. To be fair, I have seen some beautifully made simple wooden caskets, handmade with respect and reverence. The last one I saw was Amish made, a people that eschew everything about national government and government regulations.

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