Accountable Strategies blog

A blog about accountability issues in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors

The cost of “reinventing” government

Posted by David Kassel on November 13, 2007

Since at least the start of the Clinton administration, the mantra has been: let’s downsize and bash “reinvent” government by eliminating unnecessary bureaucracy and red tape.

But two front-page articles on Sunday in The New York Times detail the enormous costs and ultimate failure of this approach.

Death of a Spy Satellite Program  describes a “troubled partnership” between the government and Boeing, which led to the derailment of an ambitious program for a new generation of American spy satellites.  Billions of dollars have been wasted on this program that continued to founder on after it had been deemed unbuildable by company engineers.

The second story, which led the paper, describes the lax controls and government oversight of military contractors distributing Pentagon-supplied weapons to police and national guard troops in Iraq.  Billions of dollars in arms have been “handed over to shoestring commands,” which have failed to account for the whereabouts of a significant portion of them.

The spy satellite story notes that “the entire acquisition sytem for space-based imagery technologies is in danger of breaking down,” leaving the U.S. more vulnerable to foreign threats such as terrorist training camps and nuclear weapons sites.  And our inability to keep track of the weapons we ship to Iraq may well be playing a role in our inability to bring stability to that country. 

Sadly, these types of stories are becoming increasingly typical of the way our downsized government now operates.  And yet, the mantra continues—government bureaucracy is at fault because it hamstrings the private sector with too much oversight and too many rules.  In fact, as The Times pieces point out, the problem is the opposite.  Not only doesn’t government adequately oversee contracts with the private sector these days, but it has ceded much of that oversight to the private sector.  The result has been chaos.

Take the spy satellite situation.  The National Reconaissance Office, which was in charge of the satellite project, gave Boeing, which had no previous experience in satellite technology, responsibility for monitoring its own work under the contract, according to The Times.  The article described the situation as a:

…new policy, cousin to the Clinton administration’s effort to downsize government, of transferring control of big military projects to contractors, on the theory that they could best manage engineering work and control costs.

This was the same philosophy that undermined the Big Dig project in Boston, in which Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, the lead contractor, was also effectively given the responsibility of monitoring its own design work.  We’ve seen how well both of those arrangements worked to control costs and bring the projects to completion on time.

The Times article doesn’t shed much light on the bidding process for the satellite program, other than to note that the other “invited” bidder was Lockheed, the government’s longtime satellite builder.   It appears from the article that the government left it up to the invited bidders to design their own systems and then chose the one that claimed to be the cheapest and appeared to be the more “technologically innovative.”

The problem with this kind of open-ended bidding process is that the government appears to have had little idea of the type of satellite system it wanted and did not provide the bidders with a common design or specifications on which to bid.  It’s another example of government ceding its authority and paying the price later in awarding a contract for an unbuildable system.

In the story on the arms shipments, The Times notes that rules requiring such things as signoffs and recording serial numbers before weapons could be shipped out of armories were not followed.  One reason for this was a sense of urgency felt by some military officials to supply the Iraqi security forces quickly with weapons and to “cut through what they saw as a cumbersome military bureaucracy.”

It may be time for our political leaders to consider the huge price they have paid for bashing government even as they have emasculated it through continuous downsizing.  It would be nice to hear the presidential candidates address this issue as well.

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2 Responses to “The cost of “reinventing” government”

  1. Ben Clark said

    Don’t forget that the military has tried to outsource everything from meals to security… some of this works well, and some of it works like Blackwater “works”.

  2. sophieg45 said

    Do you find attempts to reinvent government effective? Use Gore’s plan, the Brownlow Committee, and the Hoover Commission!

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