Thursday, January 6, 2011

Saving Taxpayer Dollars

For the past year or so Dr. Robert Hoffman of ihmc and I have been writing about an alternative to current defense department acquisition processes.  The model for these activities is called the Practitioner's Cycles.  Articles on the Cycles were jointly authored.  What follows are solely the opinions of Steve Deal.

In a nutshell, the Practitioner's Cycles requires the development team to be co-located with the people who will use the product.  The development team performs cognitive task analysis, an interview method, to determine the needs of product operators and maintainers.  Developers then begin a series of cycles in which prototypes are developed and immediately fielded.  The prototypes are used to perform real work, not practice exercises or simulations.  Operators and maintainers provide continuous feedback.  Adjustments are made to the prototype or an entirely new prototype is created.  The updated prototype is, again, immediately fielded.  Eventually the prototype supplants legacy equipment,  If is is a brand new type of product, it is adopted for routine use.
Frank Wells Working on a Clarinet Mouthpiece

This is the way artisans evolve the set of tools they use for their work.  My mentor, Frank Wells, custom crafted woodwind mouthpieces.  There were no tools for this esoteric field, so he conceived and crafted his own.  I thought the most interesting one was an a protractor-like device he used for measuring the depth of the mouthpiece internal channel.

Since Robert and I started co-authoring articles on the Cycles for IEEE, we've discovered applications that are very similar to what we're proposing.  All those applications we've uncovered have resulted in products that are exactly what people needed for their work, ones that weren't horribly expensive to create.

I was recently reminded that back in the 1930's and 40's the method described by the Practitioner's Cycles was the way military systems were built.  Wright-Patterson Air Force Base circa 1930 had researchers developing new technologies, engineers working on new aircraft, pilots and maintainers to see that the planes supported mission objectives without being impossible to maintain, and testers to see that the important aspects of performance were methodically explored.  It was a system that worked well until specialization, fragmentation and Congress asserted itself.

Now construction of defense systems is spread to as many of the 50 states as possible.  This is to ensure broad congressional support for the program which allocates funds annually and could scratch those funds from subsequent appropriations.  Spreading development burdens these programs with unconscionable regulation, documentation and oversight.  Acquisition professionals can not keep up with all the regulations they need to satisfy to keep this process going.  The cost of regulatory overhead sucks dollars away from real development work all in the name of making sure taxpayer dollars are returned to each of the states.  This helps the representatives and senators of those states get re-elected.  Elected officials wanted voters to know that they are putting dollars back into their hands.

They untold story, of course, is that more tax money was required from those taxpayers in the first place.  Rather than implementing fiscally responsible policy that leaves more money in the hands of voters, more taxes were levied.  This diverted the control of that money from state residents and local and state projects into federal hands.  These financial resources could have gone into savings accounts, to state programs, or to help start new businesses if local control was maintained.  Or, if you want to stay at the federal level, these are dollars that could have gone toward reducing the federal debt.  This, again, is a move that would save taxpayers money in interest payments and result in more money in taxpayer pockets.  All done without artificial tax cuts that contribute to increasing the federal debt.

I don't really have any illusions that things will change because of our Practitioner's Cycles articles.  People who work in federal acquisition don't want more reform, because it usually means more confusion and oversight.  But acquisition professionals will candidly admit that current policy is wasteful.  I just point out that if your representative is one of those that displays the national debt on their web site, they are among those who are knowingly causing those numbers to climb.  It doesn't matter which side of the aisle they're on.  We, as citizens, have the responsibility to hold their feet to the fire.

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