Friday, March 30, 2007

Executive Decision

A personal parallel to the presidency.

When asked his reason for refusing to allow his aides to testify under oath, the President has invoked "executive privilege." The idea that his aides can't speak freely if they think they'll be forced to testify about their advice and discussions. This idea is often ridiculed. It isn't mentioned in the Constitution, but many Presidents have insisted it is a necessity to maintain a coequal branch of government.

I've always thought if had the whiff of BS about it. Why would you want to keep something a secret if it was legal, or part of a reasonable discussion of how to govern? Sunlight is the greatest disinfectant and all that - opacity only benefits the corrupt. Transparent government will always be just, and rule best.

In a happy coincidence, though, a very similar situation has developed at work. I cannot go into too much detail, but I can generalize some. We are the government's agent, acting in the interest of the Navy. In this role, we pursue the Navy's interests dealing with the shipyards. We review the detail designs provided by the yard at a series of milestones, sending comments back to the yards. At a recent informal, collaborative review session, one of our Navy team members said "this model is crap, it is not adequate for this 90% Complete Milestone." Or words to that effect.

This Navy team member got written up. His comments percolated back to the shipyard, and up to some VP-type, Inner-inner Circle Executive. And his comments were not well recieved, apparently. So now we've recieved direction that our informal, collaborative meetings will be GOVERNMENT ONLY so this kind of thing won't happen again.

This annoys and disappoints me in a few different ways. First, and not to be self-aggrandizing, I invented these meetings. I suggested them, I came up with the scheduling and the basic format. It bugs me that now the folks On High are telling me how to run something I run and is entirely my creation. More importanly, it betrays one of the basic guidelines for this process. These reviews were supposed to be a collaborative process, where the government, contractors, and shipbuilders worked together to improve the design and make the best possible ship for the price, for the schedule, and for the mission. Now we have to begin cutting some people off our invite list, to avoid saying the wrong thing in front of them. That means less eyes on the design, acting as a team. It promotes the kind of antagonism that seems to poison so many contracts. It means the shipyard is now our enemy, instead of our partner.

All of this leads me to a few conclusions. First, I see more clearly why an Administration would fight for Executive Privilege. Not just to cover up illegal or unscrupulous acts (though that may be a major factor) or to win a intragovernmental pissing match. But to actually keep doing the job. If we don't restrict the working sessions to the Navy personnel, they won't happen, and that hurts the quality of the work. And if the Administration was completely transparent, they couldn't say some things without stepping on some political toes. It may not be that the ideas are illegal or immoral - they would just piss off powerful representatives and senators, bogging down debate and snarling the already molasses-slow process of democratic government. Second, though, this reaffirms my belief that everyone's job - on this program, in government, maybe everyhere - would be easier if we could just check our egos at the door. The engineer who got written up hadn't done anything - he merely stated an opinion. How is that a problem for the yard? I'm convinced the VP-type was just offended personally, when the engineer was just offering a (bluntly phrased) assesment of the design from the yard. If you train people not to give their honest assessment and rubber-stamp things, you get spectacular engineering failures (Tacoma Narrows, Challenger, Kansas City Hyatt, etc).

For a great book on those incidents and the subject of failure due to lack of good advice and analysis, see To Err is Human by Henry Petroski.

1 comment:

i had all the ideas for star wars, and everything said...

There is such a thing as basic decency, though. The bluntness of the team member - and at such a late point in the process, too, at the 90% mark - of course was a contributor, was it not?

There have certainly been times when I've been recklessly insulted in a professional environment. I have no ego (what is this human emotion you call love?) but that didn't help at all in those situations. Opinions are fine - being an ass is not.

Nice callout of the Kansas City Hyatt incident. I was recently sharing my story about the bolt connection for the steel-brace towers on our current big project in Middlebury, and I mentioned that particular KC case of structural failure as being the largest loss of life in a US building due to engineering negligence. Not sure if that's true or not, but it certainly was a huge disaster.