ADVERTISEMENT

Examining Increased Costs Associated With Joint Government Programs

U.S. federal agencies exist to accomplish specific missions; for example, the Department of Defense (DoD) ensures national security, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) explores space. To execute these missions, agencies may develop large, costly systems like aircraft, satellites, or tanks.

To reduce the amount of money spent on these systems, government leaders sometimes establish joint programs so that agencies can collaboratively develop single, shared systems. In theory, joint programs should save the government money because buying one shared system should cost less than buying multiple systems for separate agencies. In practice though, researchers found that joint programs experience larger cost growth than non-joint programs and cautioned government leaders against establishing joint programs in the future. In response, our research explored why joint programs experience cost growth and proposed strategies to prevent those costs. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Many government agencies have used joint programs to produce a diverse set of systems. A famous current joint program is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter: a Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps collaboration that could have saved over $50B[1] compared to the acquisition of three separate aircraft, but experienced over $150Bin cost growth instead.[2] Although our research focused on a different type of joint program—weather prediction satellites—our results are agnostic to agency and system type and can therefore be used to understand and prevent cost growth on any joint program. To generate these results, we studied the acquisition history—from program inception to hardware delivery—of several joint programs and integrated political, organizational, and technical perspectives into our analysis.

This analysis generated our proposed Agency Action Model, a framework grounded in theories of bureaucratic politics, organizations, and systems engineering that explains how costs grow on joint programs. In the model, each collaborating agency is a discrete actor motivated by specific institutional interests. Unlike the private sector, profit does not motivate government agencies; instead, agencies are incentivized to maintain autonomy from other government organizations. This means that agencies value their ability to make decisions independently: a capability that is enabled by large budgets, in-house technical expertise, and unique missions that do not overlap with other agencies. 

Joint programs — which attempt to shrink agency budgets by integrating agencies’ expertise, missions, and decisions — are therefore contrary to agencies’ institutional interests. If directed to form joint programs, agencies will impede collaboration by taking actions to maintain autonomy. Over the lifecycle of a joint program, agency actions form a zero-sum game: as one agency gains autonomy, another loses autonomy and reacts accordingly. If left unchecked, agency actions and reactions will continue indefinitely and turn a joint program into a bureaucratic battlefield.

ADVERTISEMENT

Agency actions increase cost by affecting joint organizations and systems. Anytime agencies act or react, the organization’s structure shifts. Our research illustrated how these structural changes propagate throughout a joint organization — from engineers up through agency administrators — and reduce the efficiency and effectiveness of their decisions. Inefficient decisions increase cost by delaying progress. Ineffective decisions increase cost by sub-optimally trading between cost, schedule, performance, and risk. Ineffective decisions also affect the requirements for and the design of technical systems; for example, cost increases when a joint system is designed to meet the super-set of collaborating agencies’ requirements. 

As summarized above, by linking agency actions to changes in a joint program’s organization and system, we were able to explain how collaboration induces cost on joint programs. Armed with this understanding, we suggested that cost growth may be prevented by structuring joint organizations and systems to disincentivize agencies from taking cost-inducing actions.

We proposed that the alignment of agency authority, mission, budget, and expertise—again, from engineers up through agency administrators—provides checks and balances that counter agency incentives and actions. Using these basic principles, we then provided specific guidance for government leaders that wish to establish joint programs in the future. More importantly perhaps, our work also illustrated the value of understanding the relationship between technology, organizations, and bureaucratic politics and how the interactions and relationships between those domains can significantly impact program outcomes.

These findings are described in the article entitled A Model for Understanding and Managing Cost Growth on Joint Programs, recently published in the journal Acta Astronautica. This work was completed by Morgan Dwyer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Zoe Szjanfarber of the George Washington University, and Bruce Cameron and Edward Crawley of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The views reflected in this article are those of the authors’ and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense or the United States Government.

References

  1. https://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/MG1225.html
  2. https://www.gao.gov/assets/700/692307.pdf

ADVERTISEMENT

Comments

READ THIS NEXT

How Soil Management Can Help In The Battle Against Panama Disease And Other Fusarium Wilts

Fusarium wilt, a plant disease caused by pathogenic strains of the soil fungus Fusarium oxysporum, affects over 100 crops including […]

My Science Life: Ritabrata Dobe, PhD Student At The Indian Institute Of Technology, Kharagpur

Welcome to the My Science Life feature of Ritabrata Dobe, Junior Research Fellow funded by the Council of Scientific and […]

Bending (But Not Breaking) The Second Law Of Thermodynamics Using A “Thermal Inductor”

The fundamental laws of thermodynamics The first law of thermodynamics is widely known, even outside scientific classrooms, because it introduces […]

Thick Embedded Connections For Laminated Glass Structures

Laminated and hybrid glass systems are most typically made by bonding or joining together several structural components and materials. Their […]

Why This Engineer Left His High-Paying Job To Start A Bracelet Company With A Mission

I recently quit my full-time job working as an engineer for a large utility company to start a brand that […]

Creating An Algorithm To Diagnose Celiac Disease

Published by Richard Charlesworth Discipline of Biomedical Sciences, School of Science and Technology, University of New England These findings are […]

How A Change In Transportation Habits Can Make You Slim

Your body mass index (better known as your BMI, weight (kg) / height² (m²)) is a measure to express your […]

Science Trends is a popular source of science news and education around the world. We cover everything from solar power cell technology to climate change to cancer research. We help hundreds of thousands of people every month learn about the world we live in and the latest scientific breakthroughs. Want to know more?