Confessions of the Deep State — Part Six: The Allure of Cool Stuff

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Welcome to the series! If this is your first time reading one of these articles, these are my personal confessions (and assessments) of things I’ve seen, heard, and experienced as a member of the federal workforce. Along the way I try to examine some real no-kidding problems with our government, and sometimes even suggest solutions. I like to think that this stands in contrast to the various levels of hyperbole you might hear from news outlets and radio commentators, most of whom are frankly just appealing to the lowest common denominator. And if you’ve just arrived at this series, here’s Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5. If you like what you read, please check ’em out.

So — do you like cool stuff? Maybe those sunglasses that protect your eyes from X-rays and hypnosis, like that one actor wore in that spy movie? Or maybe the new juice cleanse that your personal trainer is raving about that adds six years to your life? Or maybe that electric car that can go from 0 to 800 mph in seven seconds? Do you own a sword? Or a tricked-out AR-15? How about the very latest model smartphone? Do you desire sharks with frickin’ laser beams???

If you answered “yes” to any of the above, congratulations — you now know what it feels like to be a federal manager trying to buy something to meet a mission need.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: you’re thinking that the government is this stale organization that never modernizes, never changes, and is notorious for being technologically backward. And you’re wrong; the government changes all the time, and actively tries to get up to speed with technology. But there’s a catch — bureaucratic inertia is a real thing, and once you buy a particular technology, as a large organization, you get stuck with it for a while. The bigger the organization, the harder (and more expensive) it is to get unstuck.

This has implications, because there’s always a salesman who’s ready to set you up with a shark with frickin’ laser beams. And sometimes federal managers buy the shark. And usually that’s a bad idea.

THE PROBLEM: PEOPLE LIKE COOL THINGS, NOT EFFECTIVE THINGS

One of the core problems with the federal government right now is, in fact, that the government is trying really hard to modernize. We’re not doing it very well, and one of the worst problems that we have to deal with is that people like cool shit. Cool shit is not always the most effective shit. But it looks shiny, and pretty, and executives really love shiny, pretty things.

Let’s look at a couple of examples: I’ll take one very high-profile case and one very low-profile case, both of which are in my mind of great importance to the government.

On the high-profile side, I give you the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. This thing was sold as the coolest fighter to ever fly off an assembly line. It was touted as modular (watch out for this word), stealthy (also watch out for this word), fast, and multi-role (don’t ever trust this word), usable by the Air Force, Navy, and Marines. It is also the most expensive military procurement in history: the total cost of the program is estimated at north of $1 trillion. That is not a typo.

I’m not going to lie to you, a bunch of things went wrong with this procurement. But the biggest problem was the following: military brass and people in Congress bought into the cool idea of a multi-role VTOL stealth fighter-bomber aircraft. For anyone who is in the aviation industry, you already know those words add up to one massive contradiction of an aircraft. For anyone not in the aviation industry, here’s a good article that explains why.

The core takeaway here is that the military was sold a bill of a cool, state-of-the-art, everything-for-everybody design — and very few people, apparently, realized the downstream implications. This was a design that met all of the buzzwords, but very little of the functionality, and it is now, by most accounts, a liability. The cool stuff did not add up to a good aircraft, and now you and I and everybody else are on the hook for it for years. This is a big deal; we now have one of the worst-reviewed fighters in recent history, and that could seriously affect our next conflict.

On the lower-profile side of things, let’s look at a different topic: federal information technology (IT — computers, phones, software, network connections, etc). Every year the government spends a little less than $100 billion on IT. You will never find a more wretched hive of buzzwords and cool-focused management than the average government chief information officer’s shop.

I’m going to level with you guys… probably 90% of most modern computer products for office environments are just trying to replace either Excel, SharePoint, or email. Very few of those products are worth the money, in my professional opinion, particularly if you consider them in terms of efficiency savings vs. product cost. I am continually shocked by how much people hate simple solutions.

If you look at any given agency’s IT portfolio, you’ll find a smorgasbord of products, many of which were purchased on the basis of “dashboards” or “business management intelligence” options, or, God help us all, “AI.” Why? Because someone in the management chain needed a widget, and picked the coolest option available. “Coolest” in this case has many possible interpretations, but usually it means that the product looks modern, is new, or has a really good sales team.

As a result, the government is wasting billions of dollars on duplicative or ineffective IT, not to mention thousands of working hours trying to get all this junk to work together. This does not help the government’s personnel issues, or the trek towards modernization, but it does a great job of muddying the waters and ensuring that the federal government is ever-more-reliant on contractors. And it’s insidious; one little widget isn’t a big deal. Dozens of them start to be a problem, but you get to that number one little purchase at a time, mostly because some executive says, “No, I like that one better, it’s got really great tooltips, and I like the dashboard views this sales team is showing me.”

THE UNDERLYING ISSUE

The main thrust of this issue, in my opinion, comes from a lack of understanding of the differences between government procurement and private sector procurement. This is especially problematic given the large volume of politicians and federal executives who have exclusively private-sector experience prior to working in government. That’s a huge other topic tied up in this issue, so I’ll leave it at this: in government, you had damn well better know for sure that what you’re buying is going to be a good choice and fit for your agency. Otherwise you’re stuck; it is much, much harder for a federal agency to get rid of cool shit that doesn’t work than it is for private sector companies to do this.

Part of this is politics. Part of this is agency inertia. Part of this is training. Partly it’s the tension between centralized and decentralized operations. Some of it is bound up in arcane federal acquisitions law. And a huge chunk of this issue comes from the inflexibility of federal budgets. But the bottom line is that, if you buy something just because it is “cool,” you’re probably going to run it for at least five to ten years (or, you know, fifteen to twenty if you’re talking about military hardware).

Private sector people don’t understand this concept, and often refuse to accept it when they get government jobs. I get it, Mr. Tech Executive from Silicon Valley — if you buy some cool shit that doesn’t work for your company, you drop it and buy something else. Elapsed time: two weeks. Government does not work that fast. Just writing a contract to purchase a new piece of technology can take three months to a year (or more)! Training your workforce to use something new is also slow, and reversing course and buying something else means having this whole other budgetary conversation with your agency’s CFO, which isn’t always workable.

All of this means that government is exceptionally vulnerable to sunk cost fallacies. Like buying a cool new jet fighter and then having to keep pouring money into it because it’s too big to fail, for example. And that, in turn, makes the allure of cool stuff a very, very real problem.

SOLUTIONS

There are many possible solutions to this problem; it’s not like this a new thing. However, I’ll discuss two of them here: (1) focusing on function over form, and (2) de-emphasizing the perceived “need for new.”

I chose these two solutions because they address the core issue, the “cool” factor, which is at its heart a management mindset problem. Procurement is going to buy what the management tells them to; the training and IT groups will use the products they can get; the troops will make do with the equipment they receive. None of them can directly block a purchasing executive from buying something that looks cool but is dumb. Therefore this is something that should be addressed in management training, culture, and communication at the higher levels.

Focusing on function over form: Forget what a thing looks like. I don’t care if your internal business process program has a user interface that looks like it’s got graphics from 1999; does it work? Government should be in the business of functional products, not pretty products. If you are a federal manager and you find yourself saying anything approaching the words “Let’s get this one, I like the way it looks,” check yourself before you wreck yourself.

Let private sector be pretty; pretty things are for attracting capitalist consumers. You’re not one of those. You’re above that system, and operating on different rules. Act like it. Buy the thing that works, and if someone on your staff complains that it’s ugly, ask them what their inner child has to do with federal purchasing decisions. Let’s not kid ourselves, this is really hard; we’ve all been trained from childhood to believe that pretty is better than ugly, and that tech that looks like something out of the newest version of Star Trek must be better than something that looks like it runs on DOS. Neither of these things are inherently true.*

Forget the “need for new”: Quick, what’s the primary difference between government and private sector missions? One is focused on regulation, safety, education, research, conservation, security, and national defense. The other one is about making as much money as possible in the shortest amount of time. These are different goals. The strategies used to achieve these goals need not be the same. First and foremost, junk the idea that new stuff is inherently better.

New stuff might be the edge you need in the private sector, where your goals are all focused on the next quarter, but it might also lead to the demise of your company. That’s ok for private sector; your shareholders lose out, and you fire some people, but otherwise no one cares. You start up a new company and try again. In government, if you screw up, Bad Things happen. A lot of the time, people die. It’s serious stuff that potentially affects many millions of people. The edge you need as a federal agency is a reliable, secure, proven technology base, so that you can spend more time accomplishing your mission and less time dealing with tech. Good luck getting that from the newest tech every time.

I know, this is a hard sell. People keep writing articles about how government systems are ten years out of date. My response: … and? Unless there is a process problem that is being caused by older systems or technology, I refer you back to focusing on function over form. Does. it. work? Moreover, has it been proven to work?

Remember, government is basically the ultimate corporate hoarder — once you have a product, it’s hard as all hell to get rid of it. So it makes sense to buy slightly older products; there’s no point or purpose to government being a beta tester for anything (other than military research, that is, and even then you have to keep it real). There’s even less sense in doing that for expensive things. You do not want to get stuck with a lemon product. When you roll something out to the federal workforce, or the armed forces, I would expect it to be proven to work, with known rules of operation, for a reasonable price.

SUMMING UP

I like new tech. I like cool things. I enjoy sharks with frickin’ laser beams. But I won’t think that the coolest gizmo out there is the best fit for my agency until someone has put that thing through the wringer, analyzed the results, and given them to me in a point-by-point comparison against whatever gizmo I’m currently using. I am never, ever, happy with the idea of buying a iPhone when an Android would do, or for that matter buying an Android if all the mission needs is a rotary landline. And until that becomes the norm in the federal government, I fully expect us to continue to buy cool shit at the taxpayer’s expense, and to the taxpayer’s detriment.

*There are exceptions here, and one is when producing any product that has to interface with the public. That stuff needs to be reasonably pretty, because John Q. Public is stuck on “pretty is better” and will write his Congresscritter if a website looks ancient. In this case, form is a factor of function.

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