Saturday, December 09, 2006

Lame Excuses and Contracting Out

The Times has an article today (Post had one yesterday) on the Coast Guard's ill-fated Deepwater program for getting a new fleet of ship and planes. One thing I learned in the 1970's when I was programming (in COBOL). The computer does not hiccup. It may be frustrating, but when you're writing and testing a program, it's not the computer's fault when it doesn't work, it's yours. An excerpt:

"In September 2004, more serious flaws in the boat conversion program became obvious after the first one, the Matagorda, was launched. As it traveled in relatively heavy seas from Key West to Miami, large cracks appeared in the hull and deck.

Giant steel straps that looked like Band-Aids were affixed to the side of the boats, and the vessels were barred from venturing out in rough water. But cracks and bulges continued to scar the Matagorda and other converted ships, followed by a series of mechanical problems.

Bollinger, it turned out, had overestimated how much stress the modified boats could handle, a miscalculation it cannot fully explain. “The computer broke for some reason,” said T. R. Hamlin, a senior Bollinger manager. “Whether it was a power surge or something, who knows?” The cursory oversight by the Coast Guard meant the mistake was not caught in time."

That excuse is worse than: "my dog ate my homework". Any professional organization would have its power supply regulated.

Overall, the article is cautionary. If memory serves, the former deputy of Homeland Security was the admiral who used to head the Coast Guard. He got good ink from the media, which seems now to have been undeserved. To make a long story short: the Coast Guard lacks sex appeal so it's had trouble getting money to maintain and replace its equipment. So someone (the admiral? or an eager staffer) came up with an idea: package all its needs in one package that big contractors would bid on, spreading the work around to locations that would pull in enough members of Congress to get approval for the appropriations. It worked, except the contractors (a partnership of Lockheed and Northrup (and I'd cynically believe that the partnership in itself contributed to problems)) contracted out much of the work (i.e., to Bollinger) and the Coast Guard trusted its contractors. They forgot Reagan's advice about verifying.

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