New book cites government downsizing as cause of Big Dig, other problems
Posted by David Kassel on April 7, 2010
High costs and quality problems on public projects, from the Big Dig in Boston to the American reconstruction of Iraq’s infrastructure, are a direct result of government downsizing and related issues, including inadequate planning.
That’s the key message of my new book, Managing Public Sector Projects: A Strategic Framework for Success in an Era of Downsized Government, which has just been published by CRC Press.
The book discusses a recurring pattern of reductions in public-sector managerial staffing since the 1980s and an increased reliance on contractors for project management.
If you look closely at the Big Dig and at many of the Iraq reconstruction projects, you see an over-reliance on contractors for basic management functions that the government itself used to do. Among the results are unclear lines of authority, lowered accountability, inequitable allocation of risk, higher costs, and poorer quality.
The book points out that that the Big Dig, in particular, suffered from a range of managerial issues common to public projects in which key managerial functions have been privatized. For instance, the state of Massachusetts relied on Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, the private-sector design and construction manager of the Big Dig, to undertake much of the project’s preliminary and even some final design work, oversee construction contracts, and supervise its own work. Similarly, in Iraq, the U.S. Agency for International Development used the Bechtel Corp. both as a project manager and primary contractor. Accountability and cost issues resulted in both instances.
The book also discusses quality problems on the Big Dig, in Iraq, and in many other public projects that have resulted from a desire to meet schedule goals without undertaking proper planning or adhering to what have often been traditional internal control practices. The Big Dig, for instance, was plagued by a practice of proceeding with incomplete and inaccurate designs in an attempt to avoid schedule delays.
Similarly, in Iraq, one cost-plus contract with Kellogg Brown and Root (KBR) contained more than $200 million in questionable costs because task orders and specifications were not even negotiated until six months after construction began on projects to restore Iraq’s oil infrastructure.
The book discusses a number of successful public projects as well, such as the development of a new information technology system in the City of Seattle and the recent construction of a new public library in the Town of Harvard, Massachusetts, which were completed on time and within budget. While the projects discussed in the book vary widely in scope and cost and were undertaken at all levels of government, my intent was to distill management practices that are common to successful projects as well as to projects that are problematic or unsuccessful.
The purpose of the book isn’t to assign blame, but rather to give public managers new tools to cope with downsized staffs and related problems and to bring their projects to successful conclusions.
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