Engineering Management in Government Contract Work

First published by the IEEE Computer Society in Computer magazine,
 February 1981 (Volume 14 Number 2), pages 86 and 87.

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Both government and business management rarely do well in government contract work. Although sufficient evidence shows management failure in this area, very little has been done to understand it. Most government-impacted businesses are organized according to specific contracts. During a contract effort, they hire the bulk of their engineers, only to dismiss them at the completion of the work.

Between contracts, they do not have the staff to do much more than proposal activity. Their survival depends upon the ability to obtain government contracts, not upon the retention of engineering competence to meet long-term goals. This lack of cohesive policy and unified organization is a result of the terms of government contracts and the fragmentary nature of the work.

Similarly, the government organizes agencies to deal with specific problems, and their survival depends upon the ability to justify additional funding. Subordinate to the rule of regulation and directive, government managers have become the technicians of procedure, form, and authority. They only hire contractors according to a prescript that, in their view, makes the contractor's activity the proper subject of control.

Contractor and government management operate on rule of measurement rather than perception, procedure rather than probity, and on conformance rather than results. This kind of management is all too willing to meddle in or even usurp the engineering effort. As a result, contractors design systems to satisfy the sentiments of management and the mechanics of administration rather than the requirements of effective performance.

Rational development depends upon a comprehensive examination of intent, which typically never takes place. Without such an examination, no one can define intentions that can be subjected to rigorous tests. As a result, engineering plans are subjected to repeated revision because too much time is spent dealing with ambiguous notions and specious objectives.

Expectations change as government and contractor management redirect the course of development, and more often than not, the final product definition is very different from the original. A common government complaint is that the contractor has not complied with the terms and stipulations of the contract documents. The question here is, What is compliance? The basic contract and other standards and specifications do not always articulate government expectations.

That is the reason that the government often adopts and insists upon a position that is different from the contract language. Moreover, they may even resist the contractor's efforts to comply with the government standards and specifications. The contractor is not without blame, the policy of doing, no more and no less than what the specifications demand suppresses the advantages of innovative engineering.

Self-interest spurs government and contractor management to assume adversary roles because no clear division of function and responsibility exists. So skirmishes and battles for control mark the contract activity of sending a proposal back and forth for more information, restudy, and improvement is a favored activity. So they are indifferent to the anticipation of problems and the development of reasonable requirements and seek the advice of engineers only to justify positions, not to properly manage the work. Nothing seems to get done until someone decides that the work is in trouble.

At this point, management embarks on a crash program to "solve the problem." This is not surprising because this kind of management is accustomed to dealing with short-term problems, not long-term objectives. So the same problems occur because no one has ever understood them, much less solved them. This is management by crisis and that is not a rational basis for action, only urgency-which exacts untimely and untested decisions.

Engineers have little influence in these matters because management has usurped the role of the engineers. Then once management decides what to do, the engineers are forced to make thoughtless changes to satisfy new and revised requirements. Then management holds the engineers responsible for late deliveries, cost overruns, and poor quality.

Management effectiveness is the most important issue affecting government contracting activity. The leading result of research in this area has been the development of management tools. Unfortunately, in adopting these tools, increasing numbers of managers are becoming mere technicians, seeing their work as that of measurement against prescribed criteria rather than solving real-world problems.

They cannot practice good engineering unless engineers can know and carry out their work and obligations. However, this cannot occur when others have abrogated their right to responsible activity. To develop the full potential of technology for the benefit of society, the precepts of institution, which limit our views, must give way to the opportunities of a new time and new people. This will not be easy, but the task of making work meaningful and effective, the task of management, has always been difficult and that is why we are here.

Edward Steven Nunes