Beware the Dance of the Gooney Birds

Politicians and engineers would better serve U.S. interests by trying to reach the same goal

If there’s one thing that the various wake-of- Katrina studies have shown us, it’s this: Politicians makes lousy engineers. The evidence probably shows that engineers aren't very good politicians, either.

Politicians make lousy engineers because of the way they set budgets, scopes, and schedules— project elements that are every bit as essential to a successful outcome as knowing how to design something so it works well and lasts.

As happened with New Orleans’ hurricane defense system and continues to happen with public works projects large and small, the government operates with an “if-it-ain’t-broke-don’tfix- it” mentality. The problem is the definition of “broke.” Too often circumstances define it to mean “a condition of predictable, catastrophic failure” that results in a loss of productivity, property, money, and lives infinitely greater than what would have occurred had the government been more proactive. Why doesn’t it move more quickly, especially when experienced agency personnel can easily envision the problems that will occur if the town, county, city, or state waits for “broke” to happen? Answer: Because of our elected officials. “We’ve got to keep taxes low,” they aver, failing to add aloud, “even though it means our bridges and dams will come ever closer to failure, our streets and highways will become even more plagued by gridlock, and our water and wastewater systems will barely function; even though it means our inaction will ultimately result in costs that will necessitate taxes that will be far higher than those that would have been required to institute wise preventives.”

Politics as usual
And when opposing politicians hear something like that, what can they say? “Vote for me. I’ll raise taxes, but I will bring us the infrastructure we need for the future and that will result in more income and lower taxes”? They could say it, but what’s more likely to emerge from their mouths is something like, “I have a plan to actually lower taxes!” Right. After all, who needs teachers and cops?

The result of all this timehonored flimflammery is a hodge-podge approach to infrastructure modernization, replacement, and expansion. Not enough money is on hand to get the project done well, so it has to be budgeted over several years, and no one is sure that the money needed in year two or year three will actually be there. The agency may select the engineers it needs based more on fee than competence, encouraging each to propose the least it can live with and maybe a little less. But even when qualifications-based selection is used, the engineers still are likely to learn that the design they develop will “cost too much to build;” that is, more than the woefully inadequate budget permits. And while folks are fighting over who is responsible for that and what can be done about it, a major failure of some kind occurs, necessitating major repairs that sap infrastructure budgets still more, forcing more schedule extensions and even more design and construction “adjustments,” also known as “quality cuts.”

What about the engineers who realize that the government is taking a dangerous, wholly nonengineering approach to the budgeting, scoping, and scheduling process? Do they speak up? Do they take their message to the people? Do they say, “We’re going to have to do this sooner or later, and the sooner we do it, the less it will cost in the long run and the more it will support the growth and economic vitality that help better infrastructure pay for itself”? Of course not. They say exactly what the Corps of Engineers said to Congress, when Congress said, “We want you to achieve a perfect result in New Orleans, even though we’re not going to give you the money you need to fulfill the scope that’s required.” The Corps said, “Can do.”

Inadequate everything
In an ideal world, engineers would be more politic, or “shrewdly tactful,” to achieve the results needed to optimize public health, safety, and welfare. Instead, they prefer not to make waves and so agree to achieve what they know they cannot. And the intensity of that problem seems to be inversely proportional to the size of the agency or jurisdiction involved, because the smaller the jurisdiction or agency, the less experienced its well-intentioned representatives. They know something is needed and so venture forth to get it done with an inadequate budget and an inadequate scope. At least three or four engineering firms respond to such jurisdictions’ and agencies’ requests for proposals, quotations, or bids “because we need the work.” Then, when the selected firm delivers initial plans and specifications, it is told the design will cost too much to construct, requiring the firm to “go back to the drawing board” and “value engineer” its original concept. The engineers (if like most) will oblige but fail to point out that the redesign, while it will cost less to implement, will also entail far more risk; that is, it probably will not function as effectively or reliably as the original and, in fact, may experience problems from the get-go.

When the construction documents finally are made available to contractors, not one says there’s something wrong with the plans and specs. And which type of contractor will win the award? Will it be a Type A or Type B? (Type A contractors are fair about the extras they charge for achieving the kind of quality work they’re known for. Although they seldom are the low bidders, they know and their customers know that bidding is a farce; that the amount a public agency actually pays to a general contractor almost always exceeds the contractor’s bid. In fact, when all is said and done, studies show that Type A contractors’ prices usually are more reasonable than Type Bs’, because the As do not “low-ball” their projects to win assignment and then earn a profit through change-order gamesmanship; for example, by

• calling for changes that are not needed,
• not performing changes as proposed, and
• ignoring what the plans and specs actually call for (“midnight changes”).

By contrast, Type B contractors love changeorder gamesmanship and perennially low-ball their bids. Others bid low, because they are incompetent or from out of town and unaware of local conditions that create important contingencies they’ve ignored.

Gooney bird dancing
So which contractor will win the small jurisdiction’s or agency’s assignment? Type A or Type B? You know the answer: Gimme a B! And you also know what happens from there. The new whatever-it-is works fine as long as it doesn’t have to be turned on. But when it is—poof!— it doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to. And at that point, everyone involved—the politicians, the agency officials, the engineers, and the contractors— begin “the dance of the gooney birds,” pointing at one another while yelling at the top of their lungs, “It’s not my fault. Blame them.” And then come the lawyers. Which is why, of all owners design professionals deal with, local jurisdictions and agencies are those most likely to sue. No one has the brass to tell them that they cannot achieve what they need and want with the budget, scope, and schedule they’ve developed, so they’re disappointed, frustrated, and angered when the inevitable occurs. So they turn to their lawyers to “make things right,” and “things” get infinitely worse from there. All because politicians don’t know how to engineer a project and engineers are not politic enough to do what has to be done to get the project to come out right—by somehow making the budget, scope, and schedule genuinely sufficient.

I note frequently that ASFE has published close to 100 case histories of things that go wrong on projects. Just about none of the new case histories ASFE is publishing relate anything really new. It’s all about the same old bad stuff being repeated by people who are new to the process or by people who just never learn.

If you’re an engineer, you simply have to realize that, if the budget, scope, and schedule are not sufficient to support the kind of outcome the people really need and want, they are not going to get that outcome. If you accept the project anyway, you know what the real outcome will be (your blind optimism notwithstanding), and you deserve to be part of it. (People who want something in the worst way get it just that way.)

If you’re a politician, try standing up and saying, “We’re going about this all wrong. The sooner we do what should be done, the better off we’re all going to be. And if we don’t do it right, we’re not going to get what we want and, when we finally do—if we finally do—it’s going to cost us far more than it should have.”

What kind of a politician would say that? Maybe an engineer running for office, probably for the first time. Would he or she be elected? I don’t know, but I can tell you this: When you’re involved with a project that clearly has an insufficient budget, scope, and schedule, be awfully careful of what you do, no matter what your role in the process. History is not on your side. And it’s your risk.

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2007 issue of Environmental Protection.

About the Author

John P. Bachner is executive vice president of ASFE/The Best People on Earth. ASFE is a not-for-profit trade association comprising geoprofessional, environmental, and civil engineering firms, design/build contractors, and educators.

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