Shake it Out – Embracing the Future of Program Management – Part Two: Private Industry Program and Project Management in Aerospace, Space, and Defense

In my previous post, I focused on Program and Project Management in the Public Interest, and the characteristics of its environment, especially from the perspective of the government program and acquisition disciplines. The purpose of this exploration is to lay the groundwork for understanding the future of program management—and the resulting technological and organizational challenges that are required to support that change.

The next part of this exploration is to define the motivations, characteristics, and disciplines of private industry equivalencies. Here there are commonalities, but also significant differences, that relate to the relationship and interplay between public investment, policy and acquisition, and private business interests.

Consistent with our initial focus on public interest project and program management (PPM), the vertical with the greatest relationship to it is found in the very specialized fields of aerospace, space, and defense. I will therefore first begin with this industry vertical.

Private Industry Program and Project Management

Aerospace, Space & Defense (ASD). It is here that we find commercial practice that comes closest to the types of structure, rules, and disciplines found in public interest PPM. As a result, it is also here where we find the most interesting areas of conflict and conciliation between private motivations and public needs and duties. Particularly since most of the business activity in this vertical is generated by and dependent on federal government acquisition strategy and policy.

On the defense side, the antecedent policy documents guiding acquisition and other measures are the National Security Strategy (NSS), which is produced by the President’s staff, the National Defense Strategy (NDS), which further translates and refines the NSS, and the National Military Strategy (NMS), which is delivered to the Secretary of Defense by the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the various military services, which is designed to provide unfettered military advise to the Secretary of Defense.

Note that the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and the related agencies, including the intelligence agencies, operate under a strict chain of command that ensures civilian control under the National Military Establishment. Aside from these structures, the documents and resulting legislation from DoD actions also impact such civilian agencies as the Department of Energy (DOE), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), among others.

The countervailing power and checks-and-balances on this Executive Branch power lies with the appropriation and oversight powers of the Congress. Until the various policies are funded and authorized by Congress, the general tenor of military, intelligence, and other operations have tangential, though not insignificant effects, on the private economy. Still, in terms of affecting how programs and projects are monitored, it is within the appropriation and authorization bills that we find the locus of power. As one of my program managers reminded me during my first round through the budget hearing process, “everyone talks, but money walks.”

On the Aerospace side, there are two main markets. One is related to commercial aircraft, parts, and engines sold to the various world airlines. The other is related to government’s role in non-defense research and development, as well as activities related to private-public partnerships, such as those related to space exploration. The individual civilian departments of government also publish their own strategic plans based on their roles, from which acquisition strategy follows. These long terms strategic plans, usually revised at least every five years, are then further refined into strategic implementation plans by various labs and directorates.

The suppliers and developers of the products and services for government, which represents the bulk of ASD, face many of the same challenges delineated in surveying their government counterparts. The difference, of course, is that these are private entities where the obligations and resulting mores are derived from business practice and contractual obligations and specifications.

This is not to imply a lack of commitment or dedication on the part of private entities. But it is an important distinction, particularly since financial incentives and self-interest are paramount considerations. A contract negotiator, for example, in order to be effective, must understand the underlying pressures and relative position of each of the competitors in the market being addressed. This individual should also be familiar with the particular core technical competencies of the competitors as well as their own strategic plans, the financial positions and goals that they share with their shareholders in the case of publicly traded corporations, and whether actual competition exists.

The Structure of the Market. Given the mergers and acquisitions of the last 30 years, along with the consolidation promoted by the Department of Defense as unofficial policy after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the lapse of antitrust enforcement, the portion of ASD and Space that rely on direct government funding, even those that participate in public-private ventures where risk sharing is involved, operate in a monopsony—the condition in which a single buyer—the U.S. government—substantially controls the market as the main purchaser of supplies and services. This monopsony market is then served by a supplier market that is largely an oligopoly—where there are few suppliers and limited competition—and where, in some technical domains, some suppliers exert monopoly power.

Acknowledging this condition informs us regarding the operational motivators of this market segment in relation to culture, practice, and the disciplines and professions employed.

In the first case, given the position of the U.S. government, the normal pressures of market competition and market incentives do not apply to the few competitors participating in the market. As a result, only the main buyer has the power to recreate, in an artificial manner, an environment which replicate the market incentives and penalties normally employed in a normative, highly diverse and competitive market.

Along these lines, for market incentives, the government can, and often does, act as the angel investor, given the rigorous need for R&D in such efforts. It can also lower the barriers to participation in order to encourage more competition and innovation. This can be deployed across the entire range of limited competitors, or it can be expansive in its approach to invite new participants.

Market penalties that are recreated in this environment usually target what economists call “rent-seeking behavior.” This is a situation where there may be incumbents that seek to increase their own wealth without creating new benefits, innovation, or providing additional wealth to society. Lobbying, glad-handing, cronyism, and other methods are employed and, oftentimes, rampant under monosponistic systems. Revolving-door practices, in which the former government official responsible for oversight obtains employment in the same industry and, oftentimes, with the same company, is too often seen in these cases.

Where there are few competitors, market participants will often play follow-the-leader and align themselves to dominate particular segments of the market in appealing to the government or elected representatives for business. This may mean that, in many cases, they team with their ostensible competitors to provide a diverse set of expertise from the various areas of specialty. As with any business, profitability is of paramount importance, for without profit there can be no business operations. It is here: the maximization of profit and shareholder value, that is the locus of power in understanding the motivation of these and most businesses.

This is not a value judgment. As faulty and risky as this system may be, no better business structure has been found to provide value to the public through incentives for productive work, innovation, the satisfaction of demand, and efficiency. The challenge, apart from what political leadership decides to do regarding the rules of the market, is to make those rules that do exist work in the public interest through fair, ethical, and open contracting practices.

To do this successfully requires contracting and negotiating expertise. To many executives and non-contracting personnel, negotiations appear to be a zero-sum game. No doubt, popular culture, mass media and movies, and self-promoting business people help mold this perception. Those from the legal profession, in particular, deal with a negotiation as an extension of the adversarial processes through which they usually operate. This is understandable given their education, and usually disastrous.

As an attorney friend of mine once observed: “My job, if I have done it right, is to ensure that everyone walking out of the room is in some way unhappy. Your job, in contrast, is to ensure that everyone walking out of it is happy.” While a generalization—and told tongue-in-cheek—it highlights the core difference in approach between these competing perspectives.

A good negotiator has learned that, given two motivated sides coming together to form a contract, that there is an area of intersection where both parties will view the deal being struck as meeting their goals, and as such, fair and reasonable. It is the job of the negotiator to find that area of mutual fairness, while also ensuring that the contract is clear and free of ambiguity, and that the structure of the instrument—price and/or cost, delivery, technical specification, statement of work or performance specification, key performance parameters, measures of performance, measures of effectiveness, management, sufficiency of capability (responsibility), and expertise—sets up the parties involved for success. A bad contract can no more be made good than the poorly prepared and compacted soil and foundation of a house be made good after the building goes up.

The purpose of a good contract is to avoid litigation, not to increase the likelihood of it happening. Furthermore, it serves the interests of neither side to obtain a product or service at a price, or under such onerous conditions, where the enterprise fails to survive. Alternatively, it does a supplier little good to obtain a contract that provides the customer with little financial flexibility, that fails to fully deliver on its commitments, that adversely affects its reputation, or that is perceived in a negative light by the public.

Effective negotiators on both sides of the table are aware of these risks and hazards, and so each is responsible for the final result, though often the power dynamic between the parties may be asymmetrical, depending on the specific situation. It is one of the few cases in which parties having both mutual and competing interests are brought together where each side is responsible for ensuring that the other does not hazard their organization. It is in this way that a contract—specifically one that consists of a long-term R&D cost-plus contract—is much like a partnership. Both parties must act in good faith to ensure the success of the project—all other considerations aside—once the contract is signed.

In this way, the manner of negotiating and executing contracts is very much a microcosm of civil society as a whole, for good or for bad, depending on the practices employed.

Given that the structure of aerospace, space, and defense consists of one dominant buyer with few major suppliers, the disciplines required relate to the details of the contract and its resulting requirements that establish the rules of governance.

As I outlined in my previous post, the characteristics of program and project management in the public interest, which are the products of contract management, are focused on successfully developing and obtaining a product to meet particular goals of the public under law, practice, and other delineated specific characteristics.

As a result, the skill-sets that are of paramount importance to business in this market prior to contract award are cost estimating, applied engineering expertise including systems engineering, financial management, contract negotiation, and law. The remainder of disciplines regarding project and program management expertise follow based on what has been established in the contract and the amount of leeway the contracting instrument provides in terms of risk management, cost recovery, and profit maximization, but the main difference is that this approach to the project leans more toward contract management.

Another consideration in which domains are brought to bear relates to position of the business in terms of market share and level of dominance in a particular segment of the market. For example, a company may decide to allow a lower than desired target profit. In the most extreme cases, the company may allow the contract to become a loss leader in order to continue to dominate a core competency or to prevent new entries into that portion of the market.

On the other side of the table, government negotiators are prohibited by the Federal Acquisition Regulation (the FAR) from allowing companies to “buy-in” by proposing an obviously lowball offer, but some do in any event, whether it is due to lack of expertise or bowing to the exigencies of price or cost. This last condition, combined with rent-seeking behavior mentioned earlier, where they occur, will distort and undermine the practices and indicators needed for effective project and program management. In these cases, the dysfunctional result is to create incentives to maximize revenue and scope through change orders, contracting language ambiguity, and price inelasticity. This also creates an environment that is resistant to innovation and rewards inefficiency.

But apart from these exceptions, the contract and its provisions, requirements, and type are what determine the structure of the eventual project or program management team. Unlike the commercial markets in which there are many competitors, the government through negotiation will determine the manner of burdening rate structures and allowable profit or margin. This last figure is determined by the contract type and the perceived risk of the contract goals to the contractor. The higher the risk, the higher the allowed margin or profit. The reverse applies as well.

Given this basis, the interplay between private entities and the public acquisition organizations, including the policy-setting staffs, are also of primary concern. Decision-makers, influences, and subject-matter experts from these entities participate together in what are ostensibly professional organizations, such as the National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA), the Project Management Institute (PMI), the College of Scheduling (CoS), the College of Performance Management (CPM), the International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE), the National Contract Management Association (NCMA), and the International Cost Estimating and Analysis Association (ICEAA), among the most frequently attended by these groups. Corresponding and associated private and professional groups are the Project Control Academy and the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM).

This list is by no means exhaustive, but from the perspective of suppliers to public agencies, NDIA, PMI, CoS, and CPM are of particular interest because much of the business of influencing policy and the details of its application are accomplished here. In this manner, the interests of the participants from the corporate side of the equation relate to those areas always of concern: business certainty, minimization of oversight, market and government influence. The market for several years now has been reactive, not proactive.

There is no doubt that business organizations from local Chambers of Commerce to specialized trade groups that bring with them the advantages of finding mutual interests and synergy. All also come with the ills and dysfunction, to varying degrees, borne from self-promotion, glad-handing, back-scratching, and ossification.

In groups where there is little appetite to upend the status quo, innovation and change, is viewed with suspicion and as being risky. In such cases the standard reaction is cognitive dissonance. At least until measures can be taken to subsume or control the pace and nature of the change. This is particularly true in the area of project and program management in general and integrated project, program and portfolio management (IPPM), in particular.

Absent the appetite on the part of DoD to replicate market forces that drive the acceptance of innovative IPPM approaches, one large event and various evolutionary aviation and space technology trends have upended the ecosystem of rent-seeking, reaction, and incumbents bent on maintaining the status quo.

The one large event, of course, came about from the changes wrought by the Covid pandemic. The other, evolutionary changes, are a result of the acceleration of software technology in capturing and transforming big(ger) dataset combined with open business intelligence systems that can be flexibly delivered locally and via the Cloud.

I also predict that these changes will make hard-coded, purpose-driven niche applications obsolete within the next five years, as well as those companies that have built their businesses around delivering custom, niche applications, and MS Excel spreadsheets, and those core companies that are comfortable suboptimizing and reacting to delivering the letter, if not the spirit, of good business practice expected under their contracts.

Walking hand-in-hand with these technological and business developments, the business of the aerospace, space and defense market, in general, is facing a window opening for new entries and greater competition borne of emergent engineering and technological exigencies that demand innovation and new approaches to old, persistent problems.

The coronavirus pandemic and new challenges from the realities of global competition, global warming, geopolitical rivalries; aviation, space and atmospheric science; and the revolution in data capture, transformation, and optimization are upending a period of quiescence and retrenchment in the market. These factors are moving the urgency of innovation and change to the left both rapidly and in a disruptive manner that will only accelerate after the immediate pandemic crisis passes.

In my studies of Toynbee and other historians (outside of my day job, I am also credentialed in political science and history, among other disciplines, through both undergraduate and graduate education), I have observed that societies and cultures that do not embrace the future and confront their challenges effectively, and that do not do so in a constructive manner, find themselves overrun by it and them. History is the chronicle of human frailty, tragedy, and failure interspersed by amazing periods of resilience, human flourishing, advancement, and hope.

As it relates to our more prosaic concerns, Deloitte has published an insightful paper on the 2021 industry outlook. Among the identified short-term developments are:

  1. A slow recovery in passenger travel may impact aircraft deliveries and industry revenues in commercial aviation,
  2. The defense sector will remain stable as countries plan to sustain their military capabilities,
  3. Satellite broadband, space exploration and militarization will drive growth,
  4. Industry will shift to transforming supply chains into more resilient and dynamic networks,
  5. Merger and acquisitions are likely to recover in 2021 as a hedge toward ensuring long-term growth and market share.

More importantly, the longer-term changes to the industry are being driven by the following technological and market changes:

  • Advanced aerial mobility (AAM). Both FAA and NASA are making investments in this area, and so the opening exists for new entries into the market, including new entries in the supply chain, that will disrupt the giants (absent a permissive M&A stance under the new Administration in Washington). AAM is the new paradigm to introduce safe, short-distance, daily-commute flying technologies using vertical lift.
  • Hypersonics. Given the touted investment of Russia and China into this technology as a means of leveraging against the power projection of U.S. forces, particularly its Navy and carrier battle groups (aside from the apparent fact that Vladimir Putin, the president of Upper Volta with Missiles and Hackers, really hates Disney World), the DoD is projected to fast-track hypersonic capabilities and countermeasures.
  • Electric propulsion. NASA is investing in cost-sharing capabilities to leverage electric propulsion technologies, looking to benefit from the start-up growth in this sector. This is an exciting development which has the potential to transform the entire industry over the next decade and after.
  • Hydrogen-powered aircraft. OEMs are continuing to pour private investment money into start-ups looking to introduce more fuel-efficient and clean energy alternatives. As with electric propulsion, there are prototypes of these aircraft being produced and as public investments into cost-sharing and market-investment strategies take hold, the U.S., Europe, and Asia are looking at a more diverse and innovative aerospace, space, and defense market.

Given the present condition of the industry, and the emerging technological developments and resulting transformation of flight, propulsion, and fuel sources, the concept and definitions used in project and program management require a revision to meet the exigencies of the new market.

For both industry and government, in order to address these new developments, I believe that a new language is necessary, as well as a complete revision to what is considered to be the acceptable baseline of best business practice and the art of the possible. Only then will organizations and companies be positioned to address the challenges these new forms of investment and partnering systems will raise.

The New Language of Integrated Program, Project, and Portfolio Management (IPPM).

First a digression to the past: while I was on active duty in the Navy, near the end of my career, I was assigned to the staff of the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Technology (OUSD(A&T)). Ostensibly, my assignment was to give me a place to transition from the Service. Thus, I followed the senior executive, who was PEO(A) at NAVAIR, to the Pentagon, simultaneously with the transition of NAVAIR to Patuxent River, Maryland. In reality, I had been tasked by the senior executive, Mr. Dan Czelusniak, to explore and achieve three goals:

  1. To develop a common schema by supporting an existing contract for the collection of data from DoD suppliers from cost-plus R&D contracts with the goal in mind of creating a master historical database of contract performance and technological development risk. This schema would first be directed to cost performance, or EVM;
  2. To continue to develop a language, methodology, and standard, first started and funded by NAVAIR, for the integration of systems engineering and technical performance management into the program management business rhythm;
  3. To create and define a definition of Integrated Program Management.

I largely achieved the first two during my relatively brief period there.

The first became known and the Integrated Digital Environment (IDE), which was refined and fully implemented after my departure from the Service. Much of this work is the basis for data capture, transformation, and load (ETL) today. There had already been a good deal of work by private individuals, organizations, and other governments in establishing common schemas, which were first applied to the transportation and shipping industries. But the team of individuals I worked with were able to set the bar for what followed across datasets.

The second was completed and turned over to the Services and federal agencies, many of whom adopted the initial approach, and refined it as well to inform, through the identification of technical risk, cost performance and technical achievement. Much of this knowledge already existed in the Systems Engineering community, but working with INCOSE, a group of like-minded individuals were able to take the work from the proof-of-concept, which was awarded the Acker in Skill in Communication award at the DAU Acquisition Research Symposium, and turn it into the TPM and KPP standard used by organizations today.

The third began with establishing my position, which hadn’t existed until my arrival: Lead Action Officer, Integrated Program Management. Gary Christle, who was the senior executive in charge of the staff, asked me “What is Integrated Program Management?” I responded: “I don’t know, sir, but I intend to find out.” Unfortunately, this is the initiative that has still eluded both industry and government, but not without some advancement.

Note that this position with its charter to define IPM was created over 24 years ago—about the same time it takes, apparently, to produce an operational fighter jet. I note this with no flippancy, for I believe that the connection is more than just coincidental.

When spoken of, IPM and IPPM are oftentimes restricted to the concept of cost (read cost performance or EVM) and schedule integration, with aggregated portfolio organization across a selected number of projects thrown in, in the latter case. That was considered advancement in 1997. But today, we seem to be stuck in time. In light of present technology and capabilities, this is a self-limiting concept.

This concept is technologically supported by a neutral schema that is authored and managed by DoD. While essential to data capture and transformation—and because of this fact—it is currently the target by incumbents as a means of further limiting even this self-limited definition in practice. It is ironic that a technological advance that supports data-driven in lieu of report-driven information integration is being influenced to support the old paradigm.

The motivations are varied: industry suppliers who aim to restrict access to performance data under project and program management, incumbent technology providers who wish to keep the changes in data capture and transformation restricted to their limited capabilities, consulting companies aligned with technology incumbents, and staff augmentation firms dependent on keeping their customers dependent on custom application development and Excel workbooks. All of these forces work through the various professional organizations which work to influence government policy, hoping to establish themselves as the arbiters of the possible and the acceptable.

Note that oftentimes the requirements under project management are often critiqued under the rubric of government regulation. But that is a misnomer: it is an extension of government contract management. Another critique is made from the perspective of overhead costs. But management costs money, and one would not (or at least should not) drive a car or own a house without insurance and a budget for maintenance, much less a multi-year high-cost project involving the public’s money. In addition, as I have written previously which is supported by the literature, data-driven systems actually reduce costs and overhead.

All of these factors contribute to ossification, and impose artificial blinders that, absent reform, will undermine meeting the new paradigms of 21st Century project management, given that the limited concept of IPM was obviously insufficient to address the challenges of the transitional decade that broached the last century.

Embracing the Future in Aerospace, Space, and Defense

As indicated, the aerospace and space science and technology verticals are entering a new and exciting phase of technological innovation resulting from investments in start-ups and R&D, including public-private cost-sharing arrangements.

  1. IPM to Project Life-Cycle Management. Given the baggage that attends the acronym IPM, and the worldwide trend to data-driven decision-making, it is time to adjust the language of project and program management to align to it. In lieu of IPM, I suggest Project Life-Cycle Management to define the approach to project and program data and information management.
  2. Functionality-Driven to Data-Driven Applications. Our software, systems and procedures must be able to support that infrastructure and be similarly in alignment with that manner of thinking. This evolution includes the following attributes:
    • Data Agnosticism. As our decision-making methods expand to include a wider, deeper, and more comprehensive interdisciplinary approach, our underlying systems must be able to access data in this same manner. As such, these systems must be data agnostic.
    • Data neutrality. In order to optimize access to data, the overhead and effort needed to access data must be greatly reduced. Using data science and analysis to restructure pre-conditioned data in order to overcome proprietary lexicons—an approach used for business intelligence systems since the 1980s—provides no added value to either the data or the organization. If data access is ad hoc and customized in every implementation, the value of the effort cannot either persist, nor is the return on investment fully realized. It backs the customer into a corner in terms of flexibility and innovation. Thus, pre-configured data capture, extract, transformation, and load (ETL) into a non-proprietary and objective format, which applies to all data types used in project and program management systems, is essential to providing the basis for a knowledge-based environment that encourages discovery from data. This approach in ETL is enhanced by the utilization of neutral data schemas.
    • Data in Lieu of Reporting and Visualization. No doubt that data must be visualized at some point—preferably after its transformation and load into the database with other, interrelated data elements that illuminate information to enhance the knowledge of the decisionmaker. This implies that systems that rely on physical report formats, charts, and graphs as the goal are not in alignment with the new paradigm. Where Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint are used as a management system, it is the preparer is providing the interpretation, in a manner that predisposes the possible alternatives of interpretation. The goal, instead, is to have data speak for itself. It is the data, transformed into information, interrelated and contextualized to create intelligence that is the goal.
    • All of the Data, All of the Time. The cost of 1TB of data compared to 1MB of data is the marginal cost of the additional electrons to produce it. Our systems must be able to capture all of the data essential to effective decision-making in the periodicity determined by the nature of the data. Thus, our software systems must be able to relate data at all levels and to scale from simplistic datasets to extremely large ones. It should do so in such a way that the option for determining what, among the full menu of data options available, is relevant rests in the consumer of that data.
    • Open Systems. Software solution providers beginning with the introduction of widespread CPU capability have manufactured software to perform particular functions based on particular disciplines and very specific capabilities. As noted earlier, these software applications are functionality-focused and proprietary in structure, method, and data. For data-driven project and program requirements, software systems must be flexible enough to accommodate a wide range of analytical and visualization demands in allowing the data to determine the rules of engagement. This implies systems that are open in two ways: data agnosticism, as already noted, but also open in terms of the user environment.
    • Flexible Application Configuration. Our systems must be able to address the needs of the various disciplines in their details, while also allowing for integration and contextualization of interrelated data across domains. As with Open Systems to data and the user environment, openness through the ability to roll out multiple specialized applications from a common platform places the subject matter expert and program manager in the driver’s seat in terms of data analysis and visualization. An effective open platform also reduces the overhead associated with limited purpose-driven, disconnected and proprietary niche applications.
    • No-Code/Low-Code. Given that data and the consumer will determine both the source and method of delivery, our open systems should provide an environment that supports Agile development and deployment of customization and new requirements.
    • Knowledge-Based Content. Given the extensive amount of experience and education recorded and documented in the literature, our systems must, at the very least, provide a baseline of predictive analytics and visualization methods usually found in the more limited, purpose-built hardcoded applications, if not more expansive. This knowledge-based content, however, must be easily expandable and refinable, given the other attributes of openness, flexibility, and application configuration. In this manner, our 21st century project and program management systems must possess the attributes of a hybrid system: providing the functionality of the traditional niche systems with the flexibility and power of a business intelligence system enhanced by COTS data capture and transformation.
    • Ease of Use. The flexibility and power of these systems must be such that implementation and deployment are rapid, and that new user environment applications can be quickly deployed. Furthermore, the end user should be able to determine the level of complexity or simplicity of the environment to support ease of use.
  1. Focus on the Earliest Indicator. A good deal of effort since the late 1990s has been expended on defining the highest level of summary data that is sufficient to inform earned value, with schedule integration derived from the WBS, oftentimes summarized on a one-to-many basis as well. This perspective is biased toward believing that cost performance is the basis for determining project control and performance. But even when related to cost, the focus is backwards. The project lifecycle in its optimized form exists of the following progression:

    Project Goals and Contract (framing assumptions) –> Systems Engineering, CDRLs, KPPs, MoEs, MoPs, TPMs –> Project Estimate –> Project Plan –> IMS –> Risk and Uncertainty Analysis –> Financial Planning and Execution –> PMB –> EVM

    As I’ve documented in this blog over the years, DoD studies have shown that, while greater detail within the EVM data may not garner greater early warning, proper integration with the schedule at the work package level does. Program variances first appear in the IMS. A good IMS, thus, is key to collecting and acting as the main execution document. This is why many program managers who are largely absent in the last decade or so from the professional organizations listed, tend to assert that EVM is like “looking in the rearview mirror.” It isn’t that it is not essential, but it is true that it is not the earliest indicator of variances from expected baseline project performance.

    Thus, the emphasis going forward under this new paradigm is not to continue the emphasis and a central role for EVM, but a shift to the earliest indicator for each aspect of the program that defines its framing assumptions.
  1. Systems Engineering: It’s not Space Science, it’s Space Engineering, which is harder.
    The focus on start-up financing and developmental cost-sharing shifts the focus to systems engineering configuration control and technical performance indicators. The emphasis on meeting expectations, program goals, and achieving milestones within the cost share make it essential to be able to identify fatal variances, long before conventional cost performance indicators show variances. The concern of the program manager in these cases isn’t so much on the estimate at complete, but whether the industry partner will be able to deploy the technology within the acceptable range of the MoEs, MoPs, TPPs, and KPPs, and not exceed the government’s portion of the cost share. Thus, the incentive is to not only identify variances and unacceptable risk at the earliest indicator, but to do so in terms of whether the end-item technology will be successfully deployed, or whether the government should cut its losses.
  1. Risk and Uncertainty is more than SRA. The late 20th century approach to risk management is to run a simulated Monte Carlo analysis against the schedule, and to identify alternative critical paths and any unacceptable risks within the critical path. This is known as the schedule risk analysis, or SRA. While valuable, the ratio of personnel engaged in risk management is much smaller than the staffs devoted to schedule and cost analysis.

    This is no doubt due to the specialized language and techniques devoted to risk and uncertainty. This segregation of risk from mainstream project and program analysis has severely restricted both the utility and the real-world impact of risk analysis on program management decision-making.

    But risk and uncertainty extend beyond the schedule risk analysis, and their utility in an environment of aggressive investment in new technology, innovation, and new entries to the market will place these assessments at center stage. In reality, our ability to apply risk analysis techniques extends to the project plan, to technical performance indicators, to estimating, to the integrated master schedule (IMS), and to cost, both financial and from an earned value perspective. Combined with the need to identify risk and major variances using the earliest indicator, risk analysis becomes pivotal to mainstream program analysis and decision-making.

Conclusions from Part Two

The ASD industry is most closely aligned with PPM in the public interest. Two overarching trends that are transforming this market that are overcoming the inertia and ossification of PPM thought are the communications and information systems employed in response to the coronavirus pandemic, which opened pathways to new ways of thinking about the status quo, and the start-ups and new entries into the ASD market, borne from the investments in new technologies arising from external market, geo-political, space science, global warming, and propulsion trends, as well as new technologies and methods being employed in data and information technology that drive greater efficiency and productivity. These changes have forced a new language and new expectations as to the art of the necessary, as well as the art of the possible, for PPM. This new language includes a transition to the concept of the optimal capture and use of all data across the program management life cycle with greater emphasis on systems engineering, technical performance, and risk.

Having summarized the new program paradigm in Aerospace, Space, and Defense, my next post will assess the characteristics of program management in various commercial industries, the rising trends in these verticals, and what that means for the project and program management discipline.

Sledgehammer: Pisano Talks!

My blogging hiatus is coming to an end as I take a sledgehammer to the writer’s block wall.

I’ve traveled far and wide over the last six months to various venues across the country and have collected a number of new and interesting perspectives on the issues of data transformation, integrated project management, and business analytics and visualization. As a result, I have developed some very strong opinions regarding the trends that work and those that don’t regarding these topics and will be sharing these perspectives (with the appropriate supporting documentation per usual) in following posts.

To get things started this post will be relatively brief.

First, I will be speaking along with co-presenter John Collins, who is a Senior Acquisition Specialist at the Navy Engineering & Logistics Office, at the Integrated Program Management Workshop at the Hyatt Regency in beautiful downtown Baltimore’s Inner Harbor 10-12 December. So come on down! (or over) and give us a listen.

The topic is “Unlocking Data to Improve National Defense Systems”. Today anyone can put together pretty visualizations of data from Excel spreadsheets and other sources–and some have made quite a bit of money doing so. But accessing the right data at the right level of detail, transforming it so that its information content can be exploited, and contextualizing it properly through integration will provide the most value to organizations.

Furthermore, our presentation will make a linkage to what data is necessary to national defense systems in constructing the necessary artifacts to support the Department of Defense’s Planning, Programming, Budgeting and Execution (PPBE) process and what eventually becomes the Future Years Defense Program (FYDP).

Traditionally information capture and reporting has been framed as a question of oversight, reporting, and regulation related to contract management, capital investment cost control, and DoD R&D and acquisition program management. But organizations that fail to leverage the new powerful technologies that double processing and data storage capability every 18 months, allowing for both the depth and breadth of data to expand exponentially, are setting themselves up to fail. In national defense, this is a condition that cannot be allowed to occur.

If DoD doesn’t collect this information, which we know from the reports of cybersecurity agencies that other state actors are collecting, we will be at a serious strategic disadvantage. We are in a new frontier of knowledge discovery in data. Our analysts and program managers think they know what they need to be viewing, but adding new perspectives through integration provide new perspectives and, as a result, will result in new indicators and predictive analytics that will, no doubt, overtake current practice. Furthermore, that information can now be processed and contribute more, timely, and better intelligence to the process of strategic and operational planning.

The presentation will be somewhat wonky and directed at policymakers and decisionmakers in both government and industry. But anyone can play, and that is the cool aspect of our community. The presentation will be non-commercial, despite my day job–a line I haven’t crossed up to this point in this blog, but in this latter case will be changing to some extent.

Back in early 2018 I became the sole proprietor of SNA Software LLC–an industry technology leader in data transformation–particularly in capturing datasets that traditionally have been referred to as “Big Data”–and a hybrid point solution that is built on an open business intelligence framework. Our approach leverages the advantages of COTS (delivering the 80% solution out of the box) with open business intelligence that allows for rapid configuration to adapt the solution to an organization’s needs and culture. Combined with COTS data capture and transformation software–the key to transforming data into information and then combining it to provide intelligence at the right time and to the right place–the latency in access to trusted intelligence is reduced significantly.

Along these lines, I have developed some very specific opinions about how to achieve this transformation–and have put those concepts into practice through SNA and delivered those solutions to our customers. Thus, the result has been to reduce both the effort and time to capture large datasets from data that originates in pre-processed data, and to eliminate direct labor and the duration to information delivery by more than 99%. The path to get there is not to apply an army of data scientists and data analysts that deals with all data as if it is flat and to reinvent the wheel–only to deliver a suboptimized solution sometime in the future after unnecessarily expending time and resources. This is a devolution to the same labor-intensive business intelligence approaches that we used back in the 1980s and 1990s. The answer is not to throw labor at data that already has its meaning embedded into its information content. The answer is to apply smarts through technology, and that’s what we do.

Further along these lines, if you are using hard-coded point solutions (also called purpose-built software) and knitted best-of-breed, chances are that you will find that you are poorly positioned to exploit new technology and will be obsolete within the next five years, if not sooner. The model of selling COTS solutions and walking away except for traditional maintenance and support is dying. The new paradigm will be to be part of the solution and that requires domain knowledge that translates into technology delivery.

More on these points in future posts, but I’ve placed the stake in the ground and we’ll see how they hold up to critique and comment.

Finally, I recently became aware of an extremely informative and cutting-edge website that includes podcasts from thought leaders in the area of integrated program management. It is entitled InnovateIPM and is operated and moderated by a gentleman named Rob Williams. He is a domain expert in project cost development, with over 20 years of experience in the oil, gas, and petrochemical industries. Robin has served in a variety of roles throughout his career and is now focuses on cost estimating and Front-End Loading quality assurance. His current role is advanced project cost estimator at Marathon Petroleum’s Galveston Bay Refinery in Texas City.

Rob was also nice enough to continue a discussion we started at a project controls symposium and interviewed me for a podcast. I’ll post additional information once it is posted.

Back to School Daze Blogging–DCMA Investigation on POGO, DDSTOP, $600 Ashtrays,and Epistemic Sunk Costs

Family summer visits and trips are in the rear view–as well as the simultaneous demands of balancing the responsibilities of a, you know, day job–and so it is time to take up blogging once again.

I will return to my running topic of Integrated Program and Project Management in short order, but a topic of more immediate interest concerns the article that appeared on the website for pogo.org last week entitled “Pentagon’s Contracting Gurus Mismanaged Their Own Contracts.” Such provocative headlines are part and parcel of organizations like POGO, which have an agenda that seems to cross the line between reasonable concern and unhinged outrage with a tinge conspiracy mongering. But the content of the article itself is accurate and well written, if also somewhat ripe with overstatement, so I think it useful to unpack what it says and what it means.

POGO and Its Sources

The source of the article comes from three sources regarding an internal Defense Contract Management Agency (DCMA) IT project known as the Integrated Workflow Management System (IWMS). These consist of a September 2017 preliminary investigative report, an April 2018 internal memo, and a draft of the final report.

POGO begins the article by stating that DCMA administers over $5 trillion in contracts for the Department of Defense. The article erroneously asserts that it also negotiates these contracts, apparently not understanding the process of contract oversight and administration. The cost of IWMS was apparently $46.6M and the investigation into the management and administration of the program was initiated by the then-Commander of DCMA, Lieutenant General Wendy Masiello, shortly before she retired from the government in May 2017.

The implication here, given the headline, seems to be that if there is a problem in internal management within the agency, then that would translate into questioning its administration of the $5 trillion in contract value. I view it differently, given that I understand that there are separate lines of responsibility in the agency that do not overlap, particularly in IT. Of the $46.6M there is a question of whether $17M in value was properly funded. More on this below, but note that, to put things in perspective, $46.6M is .000932% of DCMA’s oversight responsibility. This is aside from the fact that the comparison is not quite correct, given that the CIO had his own budget, which was somewhat smaller and unrelated to the $5 trillion figure. But I think it important to note that POGO’s headline and the introduction of figures, while sounding authoritative, are irrelevant to the findings of the internal investigation and draft report. This is a scare story using scare numbers, particularly given the lack of context. I had some direct experience in my military career with issues inspired by the POGO’s founders’ agenda that I will cover below.

In addition to the internal investigation on IWMS, there was also an inspector general (IG) investigation of thirteen IT services contracts that resulted in what can only be described as pedestrian procedural discrepancies that are easily correctable, despite the typically overblown language found in most IG reports. Thus, I will concentrate on this post on the more serious findings of the internal investigation.

My Own Experience with DCMA

A note at this point on full disclosure: I have done business with and continue to do business with DCMA, both as a paid supplier of software solutions, and have interacted with DCMA personnel at publicly attended professional forums and workshops. I have no direct connection, as far as I am aware, to the IWMS program, though given that the assessment is to the IT organization, it is possible that there was an indirect relationship. I have met Lieutenant General Masiello and dealt with some of her subordinates not only during her time at DCMA, but also in some of her previous assignments in Air Force. I always found her to be an honest and diligent officer and respect her judgment. Her distinguished career speaks for itself. I have talked on the telephone to some of the individuals mentioned in the article on unrelated matters, and was aware of their oversight of some of my own efforts. My familiarity with all of them was both businesslike and brief.

As a supplier to DCMA my own contracts and the personnel that administer them were, from time-to-time, affected by the fallout from what I now know to have occurred. Rumors have swirled in our industry regarding the alleged mismanagement of an IT program in DCMA, but until the POGO article, the reasons for things such as a temporary freeze and review of existing IT programs and other actions were viewed as part and parcel of managing a large organization. I guess the explanation is now clear.

The Findings of the Investigation

The issue at hand is largely surrounding the method of source selection, which may have constituted a conflict of interest, and the type of money that was used to fund the program. In reading the report I was reminded of what Glen Alleman recently wrote in his blog entitled “DDSTOP: The Saga Continues.” The acronym DDSTOP means: Don’t Do Stupid Things On Purpose.

There is actually an economic behavioral principle for DDSTOP that explains why people make and double down on bad decisions and irrational beliefs. It is called epistemic sunk cost. It is what causes people to double down in gambling (to the great benefit of the house), to persist in mistaken beliefs, and, as stated in the link above, to “persist with the option which they have already invested in and resist changing to another option that might be more suitable regarding the future requirements of the situation.” The findings seem to document a situation that fits this last description.

In going over the findings of the report, it appears that IWMS’s program violated the following:

a. Contractual efforts in the program that were appropriate for the use of Research, Development, Test and Evaluation (R,D,T & E) funds as opposed to those appropriate for O&M (Operations and Maintenance) funds. What the U.S. Department of Defense calls “color of money.”

b. Amounts that were expended on contract that exceeded the authorized funding documents, which is largely based on the findings regarding the appropriate color of money. This would constitute a serious violation known as an Anti-Deficiency Act violation which, in layman’s terms, is directed to punish public employees for the misappropriation of government funds.

c. Expended amounts of O&M that exceeded the authorized levels.

d. Poor or non-existent program management and cost performance management.

e. Inappropriate contracting vehicles that, taken together, sidestepped more stringent oversight, aside from the award of a software solutions contract to the same company that defined the agency’s requirements.

Some of these are procedural and some are serious, particularly the Anti-deficiency Act (ADA) violations, are serious. In the Contracting Officer’s rulebook, you can withstand pedestrian procedural and administrative findings that are part and parcel of running an intensive contracting organization that acquires a multitude of supplies and services under deadline. But an ADA violation is the deadly one, since it is a violation of statute.

As a result of these findings, the recommendation is for DCMA to lose acquisition authority over the DoD micro-contracting level ($10,000). Organizationally and procedurally, this is a significant and mission-disruptive recommendation.

The Role and Importance of DCMA

DCMA performs an important role in contract compliance and oversight to ensure that public monies are spent properly and for the intended purpose. They perform this role mostly on contracts that are negotiated and entered into by other agencies and the military services within the Department of Defense, where they are assigned contract administration duties. Thus, the fact that DCMA’s internal IT acquisition systems and procedures were problematic is embarrassing.

But some perspective is necessary because there is a drive by some more extreme elements in Congress and elsewhere that would like to see the elimination of the agency. I believe that this would be a grave mistake. As John F. Kennedy is quoted as having said: “You don’t tear your fences down unless you know why they were put up.”

For those of you who were not around prior to the formation of DCMA or its predecessor organization, the Defense Contract Management Command (DCMC), it is important to note that the formation of the agency is a result of acquisition reform. Prior to 1989 the contract administration services (CAS) capabilities of the military services and various DoD offices varied greatly in capability, experience, and oversight effectiveness.Some of these duties had been assigned to what is now the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), but major acquisition contracts remained with the Services.

For example, when I was on active duty as a young Navy Supply Corps Officer as part of the first class that was to be the Navy Acquisition Corps, I was taught cradle-to-grave contracting. That is, I learned to perform customer requirements development, economic analysis, contract planning, development of a negotiating position, contract negotiation, and contract administration–soup to nuts. The expense involved in developing and maintaining the skill set required of personnel to maintain such a broad-based expertise is unsustainable. For analogy, it is as if every member of a baseball club must be able to play all nine positions at the same level of expertise; it is impossible.

Furthermore, for contract administration a defense contractor would have contractual obligations for oversight in San Diego, where I was stationed, that were different from contracts awarded in Long Beach or Norfolk or any of the other locations where a contracting office was located. Furthermore, the military services, having their own organizational cultures, provided additional variations that created a plethora of unique requirements that added cost, duplication, inconsistency, and inter-organizational conflict.

This assertion is more than anecdotal. A series of studies were commissioned in the 1980s (the findings of which were subsequently affirmed) to eliminate duplication and inconsistency in the administration of contracts, particularly major acquisition programs. Thus, DCMC was first established under DLA and subsequently became its own agency. Having inherited many of the contracting field office, the agency has struggled to consolidate operations so that CAS is administered in a consistent manner across contracts. Because contract negotiation and program management still resides in the military services, there is a natural point of conflict between the services and the agency.

In my view, this conflict is a healthy one, as all power in the hands of a single individual, such as a program manager, would lead to more fraud, waste, and abuse, not less. Internal checks and balances are necessary in proper public administration, where some efficiency is sacrificed to accountability. It is not just the goal of government to “make the trains run on time”, but to perform oversight of the public’s money so that there is accountability in its expenditure, and integrity in systems and procedures. In the case of CAS, it is to ensure that what is being procured actually gets delivered in conformance to the contract terms and conditions designed to reduce the inherent risk in complex acquisition programs.

In order to do its job effectively, DCMA requires innovative digital systems to allow it to perform its CAS function. As a result, the agency must also possess an acquisition capability. Given the size of the task at hand in performing CAS on over $5 trillion of contract effort, the data involved is quite large, and the number of personnel geographically distributed. The inevitable comparisons to private industry will arise, but few companies in the world have to perform this level of oversight on such a large economic scale, which includes contracts comprising every major supplier to the U.S. Department of Defense, involving detailed knowledge of the management control systems of those companies that receive the taxpayer’s money. Thus, this is a uniquely difficult job. When one understands that in private industry the standard failure rate of IT projects is more than 70% percent, then one cannot help but be unimpressed by these findings, given the challenge.

Assessing the Findings and Recommendations

There is a reason why internal oversight documents of this sort stay confidential–it is because these are preliminary/draft findings and there are two sides to every story which may lead to revisions. In addition, reading these findings without the appropriate supporting documentation can lead one to the wrong impression and conclusions. But it is important to note that this was an internally generated investigation. The checks and balances of management oversight that should occur, did occur. But let’s take a close look at what the reports indicate so that we can draw some lessons. I also need to mention here that POGO’s conflation of the specific issues in this program as a “poster child” for cost overruns and schedule slippage displays a vast ignorance of DoD procurement systems on the part of the article’s author.

Money, Money, Money

The core issue in the findings revolves around the proper color of money, which seems to hinge on the definition of Commercial-Off-The-Shelf (COTS) software and the effort that was expended using the two main types of money that apply to the core contract: RDT&E and O&M.

Let’s take the last point first. It appears that the IWMS effort consisted of a combination of COTS and custom software. This would require acquisition, software familiarization, and development work. It appears that the CIO was essentially running a proof-of-concept to see what would work, and then incrementally transitioned to developing the solution.

What is interesting is that there is currently an initiative in the Department of Defense to do exactly what the DCMA CIO did as part of his own initiative in introducing a new technological approach to create IWMS. It is called Other Transactional Authority (OTA). The concept didn’t exist and was not authorized until the 2016 NDAA and is given specific statutory authority under 10 U.S.C. 2371b. This doesn’t excuse the actions that led to the findings, but it is interesting that the CIO, in taking an incremental approach to finding a solution, also did exactly what was recommended in the 2016 GAO report that POGO references in their article.

Furthermore, as a career Navy Supply Corps Officer, I have often gotten into esoteric discussions in contracts regarding the proper color of money. Despite the assertion of the investigation, there is a lot of room for interpretation in the DoD guidance, not to mention a stark contrast in interpreting the proper role of RDT&E and O&M in the procurement of business software solutions.

When I was on the NAVAIR staff and at OSD I ran into the difference in military service culture where what Air Force financial managers often specified for RDT&E would never be approved by Navy financial managers where, in the latter case, they specified that only O&M dollars applied, despite whether development took place. Given that there was an Air Force flavor to the internal investigation, I would be interested to know whether the opinion of the investigators in making an ADA determination would withstand objective scrutiny among a panel of government comptrollers.

I am certain that, given the differing mix of military and civil service cultures at DCMA–and the mixed colors of money that applied to the effort–that the legal review that was sought to resolve the issue. One of the principles of law is that when you rely upon legal advice to take an action that you have a defense, unless your state of mind and the corollary actions that you took indicates that you manipulated the system to obtain a result that shows that you intended to violate the law. I just do not see that here, based on what has been presented in the materials.

It is very well possible that an inadvertent ADA violation occurred by default because of an improper interpretation of the use of the monies involved. This does not rise to the level of a scandal. But going back to the confusion that I have faced from my own experiences on active duty, I certainly hope that this investigation is not used as a precedent to review all contracts under the approach of accepting a post-hoc alternative interpretation by another individual who just happens to be an inspector long after a reasonable legal determination was made, regardless of how erroneous the new expert finds the opinion. This is not an argument against accountability, but absent corruption or criminal intent, a legal finding is a valid defense and should stand as the final determination for that case.

In addition, this interpretation of RDT&E vs. O&M relies upon an interpretation of COTS. I daresay that even those who throw that term around and who are familiar with the FAR fully understand what constitutes COTS when the line between adaptability and point solutions is being blurred by new technology.

Where the criticism is very much warranted are those areas where the budget authority would have been exceeded in any event–and it is here that the ADA determination is most damning. It is one thing to disagree on the color of money that applies to different contract line items, but it is another to completely lack financial control.

Part of the reason for lack of financial control was the absence of good contracting practices and the imposition of program management.

Contracts 101

While I note that the CIO took an incremental approach to IWMS–what a prudent manager would seem to do–what was lacking was a cohesive vision and a well-informed culture of compliance to acquisition policy that would avoid even the appearance of impropriety and favoritism. Under the OTA authority that I reference above as a new aspect of acquisition reform, the successful implementation of a proof-of-concept does not guarantee the incumbent provider continued business–salient characteristics for the solution are publicized and the opportunity advertised under free and open competition.

After all, everyone has their favorite applications and, even inadvertently, an individual can act improperly because of selection bias. The procurement procedures are established to prevent abuse and favoritism. As a solution provider I have fumed quite often where a selection was made without competition based on market surveys or use of a non-mandatory GSA contract, which usually turn out to be a smokescreen for pre-selection.

There are two areas of fault on IMWS from the perspective of acquisition practice, and another in relation to program management.

These are the initial selection of Apprio, which had laid out the initial requirements and subsequently failed to have the required integration functionality, and then, the selection of Discover Technologies under a non-mandatory GSA Blanket Purchase Agreement (BPA) contract under a sole source action. Furthermore, the contract type was not appropriate to the task at hand, and the arbitrary selection of Discover precluded the agency finding a better solution more fit to its needs.

The use of the GSA BPA allowed managers, however, to essentially spit the requirements to stay below more stringent management guidelines–an obvious violation of acquisition regulation that will get you removed from your position. This leads us to what I think is the root cause of all of these clearly avoidable errors in judgment.

Program Management 101

Personnel in the agency familiar with the requirements to replace the aging procurement management system understood from the outset that the total cost would probably fall somewhere between $20M and $40M. Yet all effort was made to reduce the risk by splitting requirements and failing to apply a programmatic approach to a clearly complex undertaking.

This would have required the agency to take the steps to establish an acquisition strategy, open the requirement based on a clear performance work statement to free and open competition, and then to establish a program management office to manage the effort and to allow oversight of progress and assessment of risks in a formalized environment.

The establishment of a program management organization would have prevented the lack of financial control, and would have put in place sufficient oversight by senior management to ensure progress and achievement of organizational goals. In a word, a good deal of the decision-making was based on doing stupid things on purpose.

The Recommendations

In reviewing the recommendations of the internal investigation, I think my own personal involvement in a very similar issue from 1985 will establish a baseline for comparison.

As I indicated earlier, in the early 1980s, as a young Navy commissioned officer, I was part of the first class of what was to be the Navy Acquisition Corps, stationed at the Supply Center in San Diego, California. I had served as a contracting intern and, after extensive education through the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, the extended Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) courses that were given at the time at Fort Lee, Virginia, and coursework provided by other federal acquisition organizations and colleges, I attained my warrant as a contracting officer. I also worked on acquisition reform issues, some of which were eventually adopted by the Navy and DoD.

During this time NAS Miramar was the home of Top Gun. In 1984 Congressman Duncan Hunter (the elder not the currently indicted junior of the same name, though from the same San Diego district), inspired by news of $7,600 coffee maker and a $435 hammer publicized by the founders of POGO, was given documents by a disgruntled employee at the base regarding the acquisition of replacement E-2C ashtrays that had a cost of $300. He presented them to the Base Commander, which launched an investigation.

I served on the JAG investigation under the authority of the Wing Commander regarding the acquisitions and then, upon the firing of virtually the entire chain of command at NAS Miramar, which included the Wing Commander himself, became the Officer-in-Charge of Supply Center San Diego Detachment NAS Miramar. Under Navy Secretary Lehman’s direction I was charged with determining the root cause of the acquisition abuses and given 60-90 days to take immediate corrective action and clear all possible discrepancies.

I am not certain who initiated the firings of the chain of command. From talking with contemporaneous senior personnel at the time it appeared to have been instigated in a fit of pique by the sometimes volcanic Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. While I am sure that Secretary Weinberger experienced some emotional release through that action, placed in perspective, his blanket firing of the chain of command, in my opinion, was poorly advised and counterproductive. It was also grossly unfair, given what my team and I found as the root cause.

First of all, the ashtray was misrepresented in the press as a $600 ashtray because during the JAG I had sent a sample ashtray to the Navy industrial activity at North Island with a request to tell me what the fabrication of one ashtray would cost and to provide the industrial production curve that would reduce the unit price to a reasonable level. The figure of $600 was to fabricate one. A “whistleblower” at North Island took this slice of information out of context and leaked it to the press. So the $300 ashtray, which was bad enough, became the $600 ashtray.

Second, the disgruntled employee who gave the files to Congressman Hunter had been laterally assigned out of her position as a contracting officer by the Supply Officer because of the very reason that the pricing of the ashtray was not reasonable, among other unsatisfactory performance measures that indicated that she was not fit to perform those duties.

Third, there was a systemic issue in the acquisition of odd parts. For some reason there was an ashtray in the cockpit of the E-2C. These aircraft were able to stay in the air an extended period of time. A pilot had actually decided to light up during a local mission and, his attention diverted, lost control of the aircraft and crashed. Secretary Lehman ordered corrective action. The corrective action taken by the squadron at NAS Miramar was to remove the ashtray from the cockpit and store them in a hangar locker.

Four, there was an issue of fraud. During inspection the spare ashtrays were removed and deposited in the scrap metal dumpster on base. The tech rep for the DoD supplier on base retrieved the ashtrays and sold them back to the government for the price to fabricate one, given that the supply system had not experienced enough demand to keep them in stock.

Fifth, back to the systemic issue. When an aircraft is to be readied for deployment there can be no holes representing missing items in the cockpit. A deploying aircraft with this condition is then grounded and a high priority “casuality report” or CASREP is generated. The CASREP was referred to purchasing which then paid $300 for each ashtray. The contracting officer, however, feeling under pressure by the high priority requisition, did not do due diligence in questioning the supplier on the cost of the ashtray. In addition, given that several aircraft deploy, there were a number of these requisitions that should have led the contracting officer to look into the matter more closely to determine price reasonableness.

Furthermore, I found that buying personnel were not properly trained, that systems and procedures were not established or enforced, that the knowledge of the FAR was spotty, and that procurements did not go through multiple stages of review to ensure compliance with acquisition law, proper documentation, and administrative procedure.

Note that in the end this “scandal” was born by a combination of systemic issues, poor decision-making, lack of training, employee discontent, and incompetence.

I successfully corrected the issues at NAS Miramar during the prescribed time set by the Secretary of the Navy, worked with the media to instill public confidence in the system, built up morale, established better customer service, reduced procurement acquisition lead times (PALT), recommended necessary disciplinary action where it seemed appropriate, particularly in relation to the problematic employee, recovered monies from the supplier, referred the fraud issues to Navy legal, and turned over duties to a new chain of command.

NAS Miramar procurement continued to do its necessary job and is still there.

What the higher chain of command did not do was to take away the procurement authority of NAS Miramar. It did not eliminate or reduce the organization. It did not close NAS Miramar.

It requires leadership and focus to take effective corrective action to not only fix a broken system, but to make it better while the corrective actions are being taken. As I outlined above, DCMA performs an essential mission. As it transitions to a data-driven approach and works to reduce redundancy and inefficiency in its systems, it will require more powerful technologies to support its CAS function, and the ability to acquire those technologies to support that function.

Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow–Post-Workshop Blogging…and some Low Comedy

It’s been a while since I posted to my blog due to meetings and–well–day job, but some interesting things occurred during the latest Integrated Program Management (IPMD) of the National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA) meeting that I think are of interest. (You have to love acronyms to be part of this community).

Program Management and Integrated Program Management

First off is the initiative by the Program Management Working Group to gain greater participation by program managers with an eye to more clearly define what constitutes integrated program management. As readers of this blog know, this is a topic that I’ve recently written about.

The Systems Engineering discipline is holding their 21st Annual Systems Engineering Conference in Tampa this year from October 22nd to the 25th. IPMD will collaborate and will be giving a track dedicated to program management. The organizations have issued a call for papers and topics of interest. (Full disclosure: I volunteered this past week to participate as a member of the PM Working Group).

My interest in this topic is based on my belief from my years of wide-ranging experience in duties from having served as a warranted government contracting officer, program manager, business manager, CIO, staff officer, and logistics officer that there is much more to the equation in defining IPM that transcends doing so through the prism of any particular discipline. Furthermore, doing so will require collaboration and cooperation among a number of project management disciplines.

This is a big topic where, I believe, no one group or individual has all of the answers. I’m excited to see where this work goes.

Integrated Digital Environment

Another area of interest that I’ve written about in the past involved two different–but related–initiatives on the part of the Department of Defense to collect information from their suppliers that is necessary in their oversight role not only to ensure accountability of public expenditures, but also to assist in project cost and schedule control, risk management, and assist in cost estimation, particularly as it relates to risk sharing cost-type R&D contracted project efforts.

Two major staffs in the Offices of the Undersecretary of Defense have decided to go with a JSON-type schema for, on the one hand, cost estimating data, and on the other, integrated cost performance, schedule, and risk data. Each initiative seeks to replace the existing schemas in place.

Both have been wrapped around the axle on getting industry to move from form-based reporting and data sharing to a data-agnostic solution that meet the goals of reducing redundancy in data transmission, reducing the number of submissions and data streams, and moving toward one version of truth that allows for SMEs on both sides of the table to concentrate on data analysis and interpretation in jointly working toward the goal of successful project completion and end-item deployment.

As with the first item, I am not a disinterested individual in this topic. Back when I wore a uniform I helped to construct DoD policy to create an integrated digital environment. I’ve written about this experience previously in this blog, so I won’t bore with details, but the need for data sharing on cost-type efforts acknowledges the reality of the linkage between our defense economic and industrial base and the art of the possible in deploying defense-related end items. The same relationship exists for civilian federal agencies with the non-defense portion of the U.S. economy. Needless to say, a good many commercial firms unrelated to defense are going the same way.

The issue here is two-fold, I think, from speaking with individuals working these issues.

The first is, I think, that too much deference is being given to solution providers and some industry stakeholders, influenced by those providers, in “working the refs” through the data. The effect of doing so not only slows down the train and protects entrenched interests, it also gets in the way of innovation, allowing the slowest among the group to hold up the train in favor of–to put it bluntly–learning their jobs on the job at the expense of efficiency and effectiveness. As I expressed in a side conversion with an industry leader, all too often companies–who, after all, are the customer–have allowed themselves to view the possible by the limitations and inflexibility of their solution providers. At some point that dysfunctional relationship must end–and in the case of comments clearly identified as working the refs–they should be ignored. Put your stake in the ground and let innovation and market competition sort it out.

Secondly, cost estimating, which is closely tied to accounting and financial management, is new and considered tangential to other, more mature, performance management systems. My own firm is involved in producing a solution in support of this process, collecting data related to these reports (known collectively in DoD as the 1921 reports), and even after working to place that data in a common data lake, exploring with organizations what it tells us, since we are only now learning what it tells us. This is classical KDD–Knowledge Discovery in Data–and a worthwhile exercise.

I’ve also advocated going one step further in favor of the collection of financial performance data (known as the Contract Funds Status Report), which is an essential reporting requirement, but am frustrated to find no one willing to take ownership of the guidance regarding data collection. The tragedy here is that cost performance, known broadly as Earned Value Management, is a technique related to the value of work performance against other financial and project planning measures (a baseline and actuals). But in a business (or any enterprise), the fuel that drives the engine are finance-related, and two essential measures are margin and cash-flow. The CFSR is a report of program cash-flow and financial execution. It is an early measure of whether a program will execute its work in any given time-frame, and provides a reality check on the statistical measures of performance against baseline. It is also a necessary logic check for comptrollers and other budget decision-makers.

Thus, as it relates to data, there has been some push-back against a settled schema, where the government accepts flat files and converts the data to the appropriate format. I see this as an acceptable transient solution, but not an ultimate one. It is essential to collect both cost estimating and contract funds status information to perform any number of operations that relate to “actionable” intelligence: having the right executable money at the right time, a reality check against statistical and predictive measures, value analysis, and measures of ROI in development, just to name a few.

I look forward to continuing this conversation.

To Be or Not to Be Agile

The Section 809 Panel, which is the latest iteration of acquisition reform panels, has recommended that performance management using earned value not be mandated for efforts using Agile. It goes on, however, to assert that program executive “should approve appropriate project monitoring and control methods, which may include EVM, that provide faith in the quality of data and, at a minimum, track schedule, cost, and estimate at completion.”

Okay…the panel is then mute on what those monitoring and control measure will be. Significantly, if only subtly, the #NoEstimates crowd took a hit since the panel recommends and specifies data quality, schedule, cost and EAC. Sounds a lot like a form of EVM to me.

I must admit to be a skeptic when it comes to swallowing the Agile doctrine whole. Its micro-economic foundations are weak and much of it sounds like ideology–bad ideology at best and disproved ideology at worst (specifically related to the woo-woo about self-organization…think of the last speculative bubble and resulting financial crisis and depression along these lines).

When it comes to named methodologies I am somewhat from Missouri. I apply (and have in previous efforts in the Dark Ages back when I wore a uniform) applied Kanban, teaming, adaptive development (enhanced greatly today by using modern low-code technology), and short sprints that result in releasable modules. But keep in mind that these things were out there long before they were grouped under a common heading.

Perhaps Agile is now a convenient catch-all for best practices. But if that is the case then software development projects using this redefined version of Agile deserve no special dispensation. But I was schooled a bit by an Agile program manager during a side conversation and am always open to understanding things better and revising my perspectives. It’s just that there was never a Waterfall/Agile dichotomy just as there never really was a Spiral/Waterfall dichotomy. These were simply convenient development models to describe a process that were geared to the technology of the moment.

There are very good people on the job exploring these issues on the Agile Working Group in the IPMD and I look forward to seeing what they continue to come up with.

Rip Van Winkle Speaks!

The only disappointing presentation occurred on the second and last day of the meeting. It seemed we were treated by a voice from somewhere around the year 2003 that, in what can only be described as performance art involving free association, talked about wandering the desert, achieving certification for a piece of software (which virtually all of the software providers in the room have successfully navigated at one time or another), discovering that cost and schedule performance data can be integrated (ignoring the work of the last ten years on the part of, well, a good many people in the room), that there was this process known as the Integrated Baseline Review (which, again, a good many people in the room had collaborated on to both define and make workable), and–lo and behold–the software industry uses schemas and APIs to capture data (known in Software Development 101 as ETL). He then topped off his meander by an unethical excursion into product endorsement, selected through an opaque process.

For this last, the speaker was either unaware or didn’t care (usually called tone-deafness) that the event’s expenses were sponsored by a software solution provider (not mine). But it is also as if the individual speaking was completely unaware of the work behind the various many topics that I’ve listed above this subsection, ignoring and undermining the hard work of the other stakeholders that make up our community.

On the whole an entertaining bit of poppycock, which leads me to…

A Word about the Role of Professional Organizations (Somewhat Inside Baseball)

In this blog, and in my interactions with other professionals at–well–professional conferences–I check my self-interest in at the door and publicly take a non-commercial stance. It is a position that is expected and, I think, appreciated. For those who follow me on social networking like LinkedIn, posts from my WordPress blog originate from a separate source from the commercial announcements that are linked to my page that originate from my company.

If there are exhibitor areas, as some conferences and workshops do have, that is one thing. That’s where we compete and play; and in private side conversations customers and strategic partners will sometimes use the opportunity as a convenience to discuss future plans and specific issues that are clearly business-related. But these are the exceptions to the general rule, and there are a couple of reasons for this, especially at this venue.

One is because, given that while it is a large market, it is a small community, and virtually everyone at the regular meetings and conferences I attend already know that I am the CEO and owner of a small software company. But the IPMD is neutral ground. It is a place where government and industry stakeholders, who in other roles and circumstances are in a contractual or competing relationship, come to work out the best way of hashing out processes and procedures that will hopefully improve the discipline of program and project management. It is also a place of discovery, where policies, new ideas, and technologies can be vetted in an environment of collaboration.

Another reason for taking a neutral stance is simply because it is both the most ethical and productive one. Twenty years ago–and even in some of the intervening years–self-serving behavior was acceptable at the IPMD meetings where both leadership and membership used the venue as a basis for advancing personal agendas or those of their friends, often involving backbiting and character assassination. Some of those people, few in number, still attend these meetings.

I am not unfamiliar with the last–having been a target at one point by a couple of them but, at the end of the day, such assertions turned out to be without merit, undermining the credibility of the individuals involved, rightfully calling into question the quality of their character. Such actions cannot help but undermine the credibility and pollute the atmosphere of the organization in which they associate, as well.

Finally, the companies and organizations that sponsor these meetings–which are not cheap to organize, which I know from having done so in the past–deserve to have the benefit of acknowledgment. It’s just good manners to play nice when someone else is footing the bill–you gotta dance with those that brung you. I know my competitors and respect them (with perhaps one or two exceptions). We even occasionally socialize with each other and continue long-term friendships and friendly associations. Burning bridges is just not my thing.

On the whole, however, the NDIA IPMD meetings–and this one, in particular–was a productive and positive one, focused on the future and in professional development. That’s where, I think, that as a community we need to be and need to stay. I always learn something new and get my dose of reality from a broad-based perspective. In getting here the leadership of the organization (and the vast majority of the membership) is to be commended, as well as the recent past and current members of the Department of Defense, especially since the formation of the Performance Assessments and Root Cause Analysis (PARCA) office.

In closing, there were other items of note discussed, along with what can only be described as the best pair of keynote addresses that I’ve heard in one meeting. I’ll have more to say about some of the concepts and ideas that were presented there in future posts.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised — The Sustainability Manifesto for Projects

While doing stuff and living life (which seems to take me away from writing) there were a good many interesting things written on project management.  The very insightful Dave Gordon at his blog, The Practicing IT Project Manager, provides a useful weekly list of the latest contributions to the literature that are of note.  If you haven’t checked it out please do so–I recommend it highly.

While I was away Dave posted to an interesting link on the concept of sustainability in project management.  Along those lines three PM professionals have proposed a Sustainability Manifesto for Projects.  As Dave points out in his own post on the topic, it rests on three basic principles:

  • Benefits realization over metrics limited to time, scope, and cost
  • Value for many over value of money
  • The long-term impact of our projects over their immediate results

These are worthy goals and no one needs to have me rain on their parade.  I would like to see these ethical principles, which is what they really are, incorporated into how we all conduct ourselves in business.  But then there is reality–the “is” over the “ought.”

For example, Dave and I have had some correspondence regarding the nature of the marketplace in which we operate through this blog.  Some time ago I wrote a series of posts here, here, and here providing an analysis of the markets in which we operate both in macroeconomic and microeconomic terms.

This came in response to one my colleagues making the counterfactual assertion that we operate in a “free market” based on the concept of “private enterprise.”  Apparently, such just-so stories are lies we have to tell ourselves to make the hypocrisy of daily life bearable.  But, to bring the point home, in talking about the concept of sustainability, what concrete measures will the authors of the manifesto bring to the table to counter the financialization of American business that has occurred of the past 35 years?

For example, the news lately has been replete with stories of companies moving plants from the United States to Mexico.  This despite rising and record corporate profits during a period of stagnating median working class incomes.  Free trade and globalization have been cited as the cause, but this involves more hand waving and the invocation of mantras, rather than analysis.  There has also been the predictable invocations of the Ayn Randian cult and the pseudoscience* of Social Darwinism.  Those on the opposite side of the debate characterize things as a morality play, with the public good versus greed being the main issue.  All of these explanations miss their mark, some more than others.

An article setting aside a few myths was recently published by Jonathan Rothwell at Brookings, which came to me via Mark Thoma’s blog, in the article, “Make elites compete: Why the 1% earn so much and what to do about it”.  Rothwell looks at the relative gains of the market over the last 40 years and finds that corporate profits, while doing well, have not been the driver of inequality that Robert Reich and other economists would have it be.  In looking at another myth that has been promulgated by Greg Mankiw, he finds that the rewards of one’s labors is not related to any special intelligence or skill.  On the contrary, one’s entry into the 1% is actually related to what industry one chooses to enter, regardless of all other factors.  This disparity is known as a “pay premium”.  As expected, petroleum and coal products, financial instruments, financial institutions, and lawyers, are at the top of the pay premium.  What is not, against all expectations of popular culture and popular economic writing, is the IT industry–hardware, software, etc.  Though they are the poster children of new technology, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerburg, and others are the exception to the rule in an industry that is marked by a 90% failure rate.  Our most educated and talented people–those in science, engineering, the arts, and academia–are poorly paid–with negative pay premiums associated with their vocations.

The financialization of the economy is not a new or unnoticed phenomenon.  Kevin Phillips, in Wealth and Democracy, which was written in 2003, noted this trend.  There have been others.  What has not happened as a result is a national discussion on what to do about it, particularly in defining the term “sustainability”.

For those of us who have worked in the acquisition community, the practical impact of financialization and de-industrialization have made logistics challenging to say the least.  As a young contract negotiator and Navy Contracting Officer, I was challenged to support the fleet when any kind of fabrication or production was involved, especially in non-stocked machined spares of any significant complexity or size.  Oftentimes my search would find that the company that manufactured the items was out of business, its pieces sold off during Chapter 11, and most of the production work for those items still available done seasonally out of country.  My “out” at the time–during the height of the Cold War–was to take the technical specs, which were paid for and therefore owned by the government, to one of the Navy industrial activities for fabrication and production.  The skillset for such work was still fairly widespread, supported by the quality control provided by a fairly well-unionized and trade-based workforce–especially among machinists and other skilled workers.

Given the new and unique ways judges and lawyers have applied privatized IP law to items financed by the public, such opportunities to support our public institutions and infrastructure, as I was able, have been largely closed out.  Furthermore, the places to send such work, where possible, have also gotten vanishingly smaller.  Perhaps digital printing will be the savior for manufacturing that it is touted to be.  What it will not do is stitch back the social fabric that has been ripped apart in communities hollowed out by the loss of their economic base, which, when replaced, comes with lowered expectations and quality of life–and often shortened lives.

In the end, though, such “fixes” benefit a shrinkingly few individuals at the expense of the democratic enterprise.  Capitalism did not exist when the country was formed, despite the assertion of polemicists to link the economic system to our democratic government.  Smith did not write his pre-modern scientific tract until 1776, and much of what it meant was years off into the future, and its relevance given what we’ve learned over the last 240 years about human nature and our world is up for debate.  What was not part of such a discussion back then–and would not have been understood–was the concept of sustainability.  Sustainability in the study of healthy ecosystems usually involves the maintenance of great diversity and the flourishing of life that denotes health.  This is science.  Economics, despite Keynes and others, is still largely rooted in 18th and 19th century pseudoscience.

I know of no fix or commitment to a sustainability manifesto that includes global, environmental, and social sustainability that makes this possible short of a major intellectual, social or political movement willing to make a long-term commitment to incremental, achievable goals toward that ultimate end.  Otherwise it’s just the mental equivalent to camping out in Zuccotti Park.  The anger we note around us during this election year of 2016 (our year of discontent) is a natural human reaction to the end of an idea, which has outlived its explanatory power and, therefore, its usefulness.  Which way shall we lurch?

The Sustainability Manifesto for Projects, then, is a modest proposal.  It may also simply be a sign of the times, albeit a rational one.  As such, it leaves open a lot of questions, and most of these questions cannot be addressed or determined by the people to which it is targeted: project managers, who are usually simply employees of a larger enterprise.  People behave as they are treated–to the incentives and disincentives presented to them, oftentimes not completely apparent on the conscious level.  Thus, I’m not sure if this manifesto hits its mark or even the right one.

*This term is often misunderstood by non-scientists.  Pseudoscience means non-science, just as alternative medicine means non-medicine.  If any of the various hypotheses of pseudoscience are found true, given proper vetting and methodology, that proposition would simply be called science.  Just as alternative methods of treatment, if found effective and consistent, given proper controls, would simply be called medicine.

Sunday Contemplation — Race Matters — Scalia’s Shameful Invocation of Racial Inferiority in 2015

To start out the year 2016 I’ve decided to write about something that has stuck in my craw since the issue first came about.  I find it galling, really, to have to write about something of this sort in the new year of 2016 but it is there nonetheless and I cannot in good conscience not write about it.

The topic at hand is the questioning by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia during oral arguments in the affirmative action case, Fisher vs. University of Texas at Austin.  His comments are well documented but they are worth recounting, only because this line of thinking is shared by a significant proportion of the population.  Below is the full exchange begun by Gregory Garre, the attorney for UT.

Garre:  “If this Court rules that the University of Texas can’t consider race, or if it rules that universities that consider race have to die a death of a thousand cuts for doing so, we know exactly what’s going to happen…Experience tells us that.” (When the use of race has been dropped elsewhere) “diversity plummeted.”

Scalia:  “There are those who contend that it does not benefit African­-Americans to — ­ to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less­-advanced school, a less ­—­ a slower­-track school where they do well. One of ­­— one of the briefs pointed out that ­­— that most of the — ­­most of the black scientists in this country don’t come from schools like the University of Texas. They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they’re ­­— that they’re being pushed ahead in ­—­ in classes that are too ­­— too fast for them. I’m just not impressed by the fact that —­­ that the University of Texas may have fewer (black students). Maybe it ought to have fewer.”

Garre:  “This court heard and rejected that argument, with respect, Justice Scalia….frankly, I don’t think the solution to the problems with student body diversity can be to set up a system in which not only are minorities going to separate schools, they’re going to inferior schools.”

I want to get back to Scalia’s comments, but first it is useful to go over the facts of this case, which seem to barely warrant a review by the Supreme Court.  UT admits the overwhelming majority of its students based on the Top Ten Program, that is, if you graduated from a Texas high school within the top 10% of your class, you were admitted if you applied.  In the year that Fisher applied, 92% of the entering class gained admission on that basis.  For the other 8% of seats that were open, as Vox explained, other factors were taken into consideration including based on a “holistic” process.  Two scores were given from this process: one for essays, leadership activities, and background, which included race; and the other based on grades and test scores.  The overwhelming majority of students accepted for admission under this process were white.  Given that the inclusion of race as a factor was not a discriminatory quota, there is little here except to assert, in general, that any consideration of race is unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

The majority of legal analysis of the Fisher case itself has centered on Grutter vs. Bollinger, mostly because it is the Supreme Court’s latest statement on the issue of affirmative action.  In this case, the Court ruled that University of Michigan Law School did not discriminate when taking race into account among a number of other factors in order to ensure a diverse student body, especially in including previously disenfranchised and excluded minorities, as long as there was a compelling interest in doing so and it passed the definition of “strict scrutiny.”

Given that the Court attempts to maintain continuity and precedent (known by the Latin term stare decisis), the wellspring for this decision was really based on the case of University of California Regents v. Bakke from 1978.  There are two competing constitutional interests at play according to the majority opinion written by Justice Lewis Powell.  One is to ensure that the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment apply not only to protect the interests of African-Americans in “dialing back the clock to 1868” in a United States that no longer resembles the one when the amendment was passed, but to all persons.  The other is under the academic freedom afforded schools and colleges under the First Amendment known as the “four essential freedoms.”

Forgetting in his argument that Justice Powell was a good constitutional judge but a poor historian, this other interest may come as a surprise to those not familiar with these competing interests.  This is not surprising given the partisan–and many racist–arguments against affirmative action.  Powell invokes two previous cases in outlining the four essential freedoms.  He writes:

“Mr. Justice Frankfurter summarized the “four essential freedoms” that constitute academic freedom:

“`It is the business of a university to provide that atmosphere which is most conductive to speculation, experiment and creation. It is an atmosphere in which there prevail “the four essential freedoms” of a university—to determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study.'”  Sweezy v. New Hampshire, 354 U. S. 234, 263 (1957) (concurring in result).

Our national commitment to the safeguarding of these freedoms within university communities was emphasized in Keyshian v. Board of Regents, 385 U.S. 589, 603 (1967):

“Our Nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom which is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned. That freedom is therefore a special concern of the First Amendment . . . . The Nation’s future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to that robust exchange of ideas which discovers truth `out of a multitude of tongues, [rather] than through any kind of authoritative selection.’  United States v. Associated Press, 523 F. Supp. 362, 372.”

What Powell indicated was that, given these conflicting rights (given that no right is absolute), that when the university takes racial factors into account into admissions that there needs to be both a substantial state interest in ensuring diversity, and that strict scrutiny must be applied to such racial or ethnic factoring.  The first time around, when the Supreme Court remanded the Fisher case back to the appellate court in 2013, the majority indicated that while not a quota–and hence not an outright violation of the Equal Protection Clause–that the court had not applied strict scrutiny in determining whether UT had established a substantial state interest.  Or, at least, that’s what it seemed given that the logic which comes down by the Roberts Court is oftentimes sophomoric.

It is important to note that the UT Top Ten Program has increased diversity.  The reason is that the top ten percent, regardless of school, qualify for the program.  This effect is rooted in discrimination in housing patterns that extend back to the late 19th century when, first, Jim Crow laws were passed in the southern states (such as Texas) to essentially re-enslave and disenfranchise the freedmen.  Many people will be surprised to know that these laws continued in force well into the 1960s, the last case being brought to overturn the last vestiges of the race laws in the mid-1970s.  Then in the north beginning in the 1920s, first, local ordinance, and then, when those were struck down, restrictive covenants were applied to keep African Americans and other minority and ethnic groups out of white, Anglo-Saxon protestant neighborhoods.  When restrictive covenants were eventually overturned, real estate brokers and bankers applied the process of “redlining.”  That is, home loans and mortgages were made harder to qualify for or denied to certain racial and ethnic groups.  The map was lined in red to keep people in their “place.”  Ostensibly, this practice was outlawed with the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968, but the practice has continued to this day.  Furthermore, for most of our history African Americans have had to pay a premium for better housing that otherwise would have gone for a lower market price.  It was racial fear and manipulation that caused white flight in giving the impression of falling real estate value when African-Americans were allowed to move into a predominately white community.  The sordid history behind this phenomena are amply documented in the National Book Award winning history, Arc of Justice by historian Kevin Boyle.

When one hears political and opinion leaders assert that the housing crisis was caused by diversity targets in sub-prime loans they are not only stating a counterfactual and providing bad economic analysis, but are also engaged in race baiting.  It is redlining that caused minorities to be most vulnerable when the bubble burst because they tended to pay usurious interest rates–or were funneled into subprime balloon mortgages–in order to derive the same benefits of home ownership as other groups, who were afforded more reasonable financing.  Given that most of these are working people living paycheck to paycheck, it takes no great insight to know that they will be the first to default during an unusually severe economic downturn.

Thus, when one considers that most public school funding is derived from real estate property taxes and that the average homeowner based on a 2013 survey stays in their home 13 years (with the historical average varying between 10 and 16 years since 1997), the effects of previously discriminatory practices–and school funding, as well as socio-economic and racial composition–depending the rate of turnover in any particular neighborhood, can last a generation or more.  Despite political arguments to the contrary, monies spent on schools plays a significant role in student achievement.  It would have been appropriate for Justice Powell in Bakke to have at least acknowledged this history as well as the history of new immigrants and minorities that he invoked in his decision in expressing his concern about turning back the clock.

It is important to state clearly that there is no doubt things have improved despite Bakke, and that it was probably a largely well-conceived adjudication.  Despite claims to the contrary, the Great Society and Civil Rights reforms of the 1960s have eliminated the worst de jure and de facto day-to-day indignities, fear of violence, discrimination, and denial of human rights that African-Americans lived under well into the late 20th century.  Opportunities have opened up and it is amazing that over the last 50 years that we can find young African-Americans who have never suffered the indignity of bias or discrimination due to the color of their skin.  But as with the recent problems in policingcriminal justice, and the subtle racism that exists in job selection and opportunities, among other issues, it is apparent that we still have work to do for us to fully overcome our history of slavery, Jim Crow, racism, discrimination, and racial terrorism.  For when one looks back, the fact of the matter is that much of this country–and the basis of its wealth–was built on the backs of African American slavery and oppression.  Without the African-American experience, American culture is indecipherable.  New immigrants, when taking advantage of the inherited advantages of being American also, unknowing to them, inherit the history that made those advantages possible.

But now back to Justice Scalia’s remarks.  Had Scalia restricted himself to the constitutional issues addressed by Powell in Bakke, there would be no concern.  But this is not what the members of this SCOTUS are about.  In the case of Scalia, his remarks would have been at home in the post-Reconstruction south in the late 19th and early 20th century, along with Spencer’s Social Darwinism and eugenics.  This was the period that endorsed separate but “equal” facilities for African-Americans.  Scalia seems to be suggesting a modern version of it in higher education.  But we have seen these ideas invoked fairly recently elsewhere, particularly in the discredited work of Herrnstein and Murray in publishing their work The Bell Curve.  His comments are what is called “Begging the Question.”  Scalia “begs the question” in assuming in his remarks that African-Americans are not qualified generally for UT, and that they do not possess the mental or educational skills to succeed there.  His remarks also reveal someone who thinks in terms of hierarchy and aristocracy, that there are levels of human fitness and superiority, which also underlies such concepts as “makers” and “takers.”

Apologists in academia and elsewhere have attempted to temper the justice’s words by invoking the concept of mismatch in college admissions.  It is often referred to as a “theory” but that would elevate it to have an authority that it does not possess.  It is Cargo Cult Social Science based on loosely correlated statistics that provides a veneer of respectability to those who still seek to explain inequality in a society that claims fancifully to be meritocratic, or egalitarian, or a land of opportunity, but which is not really any of these.  But that is not the underlying assumption in Scalia’s remarks.  He begins with calling out African Americans (and restricts himself to African Americans among minorities) and then goes from there.  Further studies on mismatch (link below) show that it is a common phenomenon which affects all racial and ethnic groups.  No system is perfect, and especially not one conceived by society or academia.

But even putting aside the racist assumptions of Justice Scalia, does the mismatch concept even pass the “so-what?” test?  What if one is thrown into a situation for which they are poorly prepared?  In real life we call this “sink or swim.”  Does it really do harm?  There are all kinds of casuistry put forth but, despite assertions to the contrary, the facts are not conclusive.

To give but one famous historical example that undermines this bit of sophistry, the fact that General Lee graduated second in his West Point class and U.S. Grant graduated in the bottom half no doubt influenced them later in life.  Lee was able to defeat with great skill generals who were unused to defeat and disappointment, and routed them from the field.  But his supreme confidence in his abilities caused his utter failure at Gettysburg.  Grant, on the other hand, who experienced failure both as a civilian and on the battlefield, grew unafraid of it and succeeded in the end.  The fact that someone experiences a setback or must work hard in order to succeed is not such a bad thing.  It is how the individual reacts in the face of disappointment or long odds that we call character.  It is the standard means of training Naval officers at sea and why mentoring is so important.  (Only puffed up college professors don’t feel that their job is teaching).  Yes, the world is a big place; yes, there are things you don’t know, but absent a severe learning or emotional disability you can learn them.

But seeing this self-evident insight would assume rational thought and evidence.  For example, many of the characteristics attributed to African-Americans in The Bell Curve have since been overcome, such as significantly rising math and reading scores on standardized tests that are closing the gap with white achievement.  If these were innate or unsolvable deficiencies how was it possible that public policy is alleviating the gap?  Does it harm African-Americans to be challenged to do so?  Given the disreputable history of race in America what is more likely: that African-Americans are innately less likely to succeed at UT (and increasing numbers entered under the Top Ten Program), or that the history of unequal educational opportunity deserves to be addressed in the most equitable and constitutional manner?  Or that unequal treatment and the socio-economic effects of economic discrimination, which still exist, have a great effect on minorities that require a reasoned assessment of the individual in taking into account mitigating circumstances, including racial or ethnic background, in college admissions for those on the fence?

That a Supreme Court justice can voice such stupidity and bias in the year 2015 is evidence enough that there is something wrong with our judicial system.  I beg to differ with the proposition voiced by the late Senator Roman Hruska in defending Nixon’s appointment of G. Harold Carswell to the Supreme Court (which was rejected), that mediocrity deserves representation on the court.  While we can’t always find a Brandeis, Cardozo, or Frankfurter (or a Holmes, Brennan, Black, Story, or Warren), we can at least attempt to do so.  Unfortunately we are stuck with a Scalia and his ilk.