Here's an abject lesson for Congress, government managers, and voters.
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After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) was approached by U.S. Government civilian agencies to help coordinate land mapping and space imagery in times of national disasters and major events such as the Olympics. As a Department of Defense agency whose responsibilities lay outside the boundaries of the country, NGA had no domestic capabilities to assist.
To meet the need, NGA staff envisioned a solution based on an existing U.S. Army platform: a Humvee loaded with computer gear, map printers, and cooling equipment (to keep the computers cool and efficient) with an attached tent for personnel to do their work. NGA reached out to its private-sector contractors and suggested an arrangement where equipment could be placed in travel cases and loaded onto a commercial flight – all based out of a standard large sports-utility vehicle to keep a lower profile in the affected area.
What they got was a firetruck and an ambulance.
The Domestic Mobile Integrated Geospatial-Intelligence System (DMIGS) was to be based in the Washington DC area and driven or flown via military aircraft to the site needing assistance. The firetruck carried all the equipment with expandable sides that made room for the personnel inside; the ambulance was a chase vehicle that carried additional fuel for the generators that provided power for the computer and cooling equipment.
NGA staff responsible for providing disaster assistance realized the folly in all this, but the agency paid for it anyway. The contractor had completely blown the scope of the project, adding requirements and lots of cost. So did they get it right?
Nope. The first iteration of the two-vehicle DMIGS set-up had no latch points for securing the vehicles within the military aircraft transporting the vehicles. So they built two more vehicles. The second iteration built latch points into the bottom part of the chassis. Unfortunately no one had talked to the U.S. Air Force loadmaster responsible for safely transporting DMIGS: the latch points needed to be on top of the vehicles.
Is this an example of contractors looking for the big sale and overselling the need? Sure. But it's also a case of the government buying flash over function and being unable to say, "No." The same is true for Congress as it demonstrates its inability to trim the fat from the Defense budget. As voters we're guilty too, asking our elected officials, "What's in it for me?" instead of, "What do we need to do?"
To end these wasteful outcomes, government employees and contractors need to get out of the "more is more" mindset and move to "meet the requirement for less". Competition, transparency, and capable managers can make it happen; voters must demand it.