Gore: Nothing Succeeds Like Failure

P> A government modernization program is years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget. So what does the government do? It removes oversight. It shifts blame from particular managers to "the procurement process." And the prime contractor in the project gets to continue.

Argentina? Russia? Italy?

Nope, the good old U.S.A.

Attention government managers and contractors: Al Gore rewards incompetence. The Veep last month made headlines for his decision to relieve the Federal Aviation Administration of its obligation to obey federal procurement regulations. That's right -- the FAA, which is currently managing one of the biggest computer modernization disasters in history. Mention "FAA modernization" to government high-tech contractors, and they roll their eyes and begin telling stories of monumental incompetence. "Off the record..." they start, and so begins another tale of how good intentions became a contract boondoggle.

Gore needs to go back to prep school and take a course in basic logic. He has wrongly assumed that the FAA can't modernize its computer systems because the procurement process is broken.

Yet, other agencies use the same process to build and integrate computer systems that work.

The FAA's problem stems from good, old-fashioned incompetence. Project managers at the FAA and its prime modernization contractor -- Loral -- bear direct responsibility for bungling modernization. They made questionable decisions about technologies, they exaggerated their capabilities to those holding the purse strings (the American taxpayer) and they tried to do more than prudent people would have thought possible.

No less than three government procurement watchdogs -- the General Services Administration, the Office of Management and Budget and the General Accounting Office -- have publicly questioned the FAA modernization.

Hats off to Loral and the FAA for successfully diverting political attention from the root cause of the agency's problem.

Shame on Al Gore and Congress for being so easily manipulated.

Making the FAA an incubator for procurement reform is wrong. It says to the contractor: Fail and you get to extend the life and value of the contract. It says to the agency: Fail and you get to run procurements without oversight.

Gore needs to look elsewhere for examples of procurement success. For years, defense and intelligence agencies have bought and built systems without the encumbrances of the procurement process. They are among the most sophisticated and successful users of information technology. They're so good, their systems have spawned multibillion dollar commercial markets -- the Internet, Global Positioning System satellites and wireless communications, to name a few.

Let's make examples of their procurement successes.

And let's pick up the trail of accountability at the FAA so we can find those people -- and not the processes -- responsible for failure.

The philosopher Hegel once said that people get the kind of government they deserve. His point was that human beings, and not abstract processes or ineluctable historical forces, shape the character of institutions. The same is true of government agencies: Agency managers get the kind of system they deserve. The FAA has lousy management and so it has lousy computer systems.

We should be making the FAA a test bed for incompetence. Instead, Al Gore announces the FAA is to be a test bed for procurement reform. To be consistent, why doesn't he lift procurement rules for the Internal Revenue Service, which has royally botched its own modernization? After all, nothing succeeds like failure -- in Washington.


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