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Gov't failures: Engineering brain drain and bad leadership

Many large-scale government technology initiatives are failing due to an exodus of qualified systems engineers away from the public sector to private industry. An in-depth analysis of the problem conducted by the National Research Council reveals the considerable impact of this problem.
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Written by Michael Krigsman, Contributor on

Many large-scale government technology initiatives are failing due to an exodus of qualified systems engineers away from the public sector to private industry. An in-depth analysis of the problem conducted by the National Research Council reveals the considerable impact of this problem.

The New York Times described the issue:

That brain drain, military experts...say, is a big factor in a breakdown in engineering management that has made huge cost overruns and long delays the maddening norm

[T]he central problem is a breakdown in the most basic element of any big military project: accurately assessing at the outset whether the technological goals are attainable and affordable, then managing the engineering to ensure that hardware and software are properly designed, tested and integrated.

The technical term for the discipline is systems engineering. Without it, projects can turn into chaotic, costly failures.

The detailed analytical report, titled "Pre-Milestone A and Early-Phase Systems Engineering: A Retrospective Review and Benefits for Future Air Force Acquisition," states that government projects are becoming worse over time:

The time required to execute large, government-sponsored systems development programs has more than doubled over the past 30 years, and the cost growth has been at least as great....[T]his trend is particularly puzzling given the enormous productivity advantages conferred by the advent of the Internet and e-mail, the revolution in electronics and computer technology, and advances in knowledge-management and collaboration tools such as computer-aided design (CAD), computer-aided manufacturing (CAM), computer-aided software engineering (CASE), and modeling and simulation.

The following table illustrates this point:

Government systems engineering brain drain

Beyond the brain drain as a primary driver of over-budget and late government projects, the report identifies "six seeds of failure," as it calls certain management and process contributors to the problem:

[T]he committee examined the myriad factors that may have contributed to serious development issues and identified six factors that are pervasive sources of poor performance and that are addressable through sound systems engineering processes.

The six seeds of failure are summarized in a chart:

six seeds of failure

Failed government technology projects cost taxpayers billions; this report takes a hard-nosed look into the problem and offers concrete suggestions. Care to guess whether the government will actually follow the advice?

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