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.
This page was last updated on Monday, January 23, 2012
Both government and business management rarely do well in government contract work. Although there is sufficient evidence of management failure in this area, very little has been done to understand it. By and large, 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 provoked by the terms of government contracts and the fragmentary nature of the work.
Similarly, government agencies are organized 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 which, 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 principle, 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, systems are designed 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, intentions cannot be defined or 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 constitutes compliance? The basic contract and other standards and specifications do not always articulate government expectations.
The government often adopts and insists upon a position somewhat different from the contract language, and may even resist the contractor's efforts to comply with the government standards and specifications. The contractor is not without blame, even when there is little or no-cost effect, the policy of doing no more and no-less than the specifications demand suppresses the advantages of innovative engineering.
Self-interest spurs government and contractor management to assume adversary roles, but otherwise there is no clear division of function and responsibility. The contract activity is marked by skirmishes and battles for control of the task-sending a proposal back and forth for more information, restudy, and improvement is a favorite activity.
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. The same problems occur repeatedly because they have never been understood, much less solved. This is management by crisis; there is no rational basis for action, only urgency-which exacts untimely and untested decisions.
Engineers have little influence in these matters because their function has been assumed by others and their prerogatives usurped by management. Once a decision is made, they are forced to make thoughtless changes in plans and are hurried by exigent circumstance to implement new and revised requirements. And so, the engineers are held responsible for late deliveries, cost overruns, and poor quality.
Management effectiveness is the most important issue affecting government contracting activity. The principal 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 perception of and action upon real situations.
Good engineering cannot be practiced unless engineers can know and carry out their work and obligations. This is not true when their right to responsible activity has been abrogated by others. 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