Queen of Hearts: Now … are you ready for your sentence?
Alice: Sentence? But there has to be a verdict first …
Queen of Hearts: Sentence first! Verdict afterwards.
Alice: But that just isn’t the way …
Queen of Hearts: [shouting] All ways are …
Alice: … your ways, your Majesty.
— Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Last week, President-elect Trump urged the government to cancel an order with Boeing to build the new Air Force One:
The plane is totally out of control. I think it’s ridiculous. I think Boeing is doing a little bit of a number. We want Boeing to make a lot of money but not that much money.
In response to Trump’s comments, Boeing released a statement:
We are currently under contract for $170 million to help determine the capabilities of these complex military aircraft that serve the unique requirements of the President of the United States.
Soon thereafter, Boeing Chief Executive Dennis Muilenburg called Trump and told him the cost of the airplane could be lowered if the U.S. Air Force changed its requirements.
A few days after this incident, Trump took on Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighter program, which is projected to cost about $400 billion over its lifetime — making it the Pentagon’s most expensive program. (Full disclosure: I worked on a related F-35 sub-contract a few years ago.) Wrote Trump on Twitter:
The F-35 program and cost is out of control. Billions of dollars can and will be saved on military (and other) purchases after January 20th.
As in the Boeing case, Lockheed Martin followed with its own statement. Said F-35 program spokesman Jeff Babione:
I certainly welcome the opportunity to address any question that the President-elect would have about the program. Lockheed Martin and its industry partners understand the importance of affordability for the F-35 program.
Many may find the Queen of Hearts’ “Off with their heads” management style exactly what we need to rein in out-of-control spending in Washington. And I have to admit, part of me likes it. However, this method works only if the people losing their heads are the ones causing the problems.
It’s easy for Trump to imply that suppliers are playing games leading to cost overruns, as he did with his Boeing statement above. It sounds like something a CEO hired to rescue a company would do — kick ass and take names. And after stories of $500 hammers and $1,000 toilets, many people are ready to put the contractor in the crosshairs. But if Trump is going to take the role of the Queen of Hearts, let’s make sure we understand that in Washington, as in Wonderland, everyone is nuts.
Over the years, the Department of Defense has spent a tremendous amount of money training civilian and military personnel on proper program-management techniques. The hope was that if government program managers know how to properly manage a program, then projects would come in under cost, on time, and within specifications.
But the program manager, no matter how he or she tries, is merely the fall guy — a person higher-ups can blame for cost overruns, delays, and broken systems.
The government program manager manages a process he or she has minimal control over, because the process is political, not solely technical or financial.
There is a story involving FDR and Kenneth McKellar, a powerful senator from Tennessee, who was the ranking member on the Senate Appropriations Committee at the time of the Manhattan Project. When FDR briefed Senate leaders on funding for the Manhattan Project, the senators were interested in where the various research and production facilities were going to be located. McKellar reportedly told FDR (paraphrasing), “Mr. President, you have my support on this very important project. Now tell me where in Tennessee you would like the reactor to be located.”
That location eventually became Oak Ridge National Laboratories.
As workers at the bottom of the food chain try their best to do their jobs, the generals, politicians, bureaucrats, and lobbyists are busy ensuring that whatever comes out of the production line meets whatever political requirements the industrial complex may have. Sometimes the product works as promised, but at tremendous cost overruns and delays.
As for contractors playing with numbers, as Trump alleges, I’m sure that happens. But here again, it should be understood that the government has whole departments that do nothing but visit contractors to inspect their books. Having people watch other people work is something government does very well.
Trump has promised to slash government regulations. And here is where the biggest bang for the buck will come from, because federal contractors have to follow all federal regulations and policies. These are the real drivers behind a good portion of rising government procurement costs, as well as the high costs of goods and services across the country.
The Queen of Hearts was quick in condemning her subjects to beheadings, but very few executions actually occurred because the King of Hearts quietly commuted most of them behind the Queen’s back. There’s a process here bigger than Trump. I admire the energy in Trump’s mannerisms, but he has to be careful not to look like a fool. With some peripheral changes, the Air Force One and F-35 projects will go on as usual. So far, all Trump has accomplished is lowering Boeing’s and Lockheed Martin’s stock values.