guest blogger john hare
Many of us have complained from time to time about the lack of true progress from NASA even while agreeing that there are a lot of very smart motivated people in the agency. It would be useful if some way could be found to use the capabilities of those skilled people without the anchor of bureaucracy holding them back. It is even more difficult considering the role congress plays in controlling the outcome of funding for the different stakeholders.
I wonder if it could be made possible to provide incentives to the people that can produce, while simultaneously preventing the bureaucrats in the agency from interfering with the producers. I suggest a thought experiment for increasing agency performance in a politically acceptable manner, while reducing long term costs. This is just a first cut for the Halibut.
List a series of projects internal to the agency for employees to bid on. A condition of the bid is that successful completion of the project ahead of time and budget qualifies the participating employees for full retirement effective immediately after the demonstration of success. Incentive also is that 10% of the funds remaining from being under budget is split among the participating employees. Failure to complete on time and budget is immediate layoff from the agency.
Other NASA employees have no oversight role for these cheetah teams. If the team leader and his group are good though, they will get the support of many of the theoretically uninvolved to help accomplish the project, even though they will not be eligible for the retirement package.
A project might be a multipropellant depot in LEO. It must accept LOX and fuel from at least two vehicle types and dispense the propellants to a different vehicle type after storing it for at least two months. Time limit three years and bid cap at three billion including projected retirement payments.
Whichever group gets the bid will increase spending in a congressional district through at least one election cycle and possibly two. With congressmen on the bid review board, it seems likely that they will be going for the infusion of near term pork and will worry about the following elections later. The bidding NASA teams will be aware of this and will dutifully spread the pork as far as they need to to get the congressmen on their side.
A bid might be a team leader and a couple of hundred other NASA employees bidding $2.6B and 32 months. If they succeed on time and for $2.1B, they split $50M two hundred ways by whatever formula they agreed to among themselves and retire early with full benefits. The depot is in orbit and operational and two hundred people with a performance track record are available to the private sector if they choose to keep working. Also $850M less than the original cap could be available for the follow on projects.
The retirement incentive is center to the strategy. After slamming a project through with little time for the agency drone workers, the project members will need to get out as too many toes will have been stepped on for them to be part of the clique again. The termination for failure is the stick to balance the carrots.
An F1 class kerosene engine might be another project with a functioning rotovator for a different group.
A suitably motivated group could have had Ares I flying by now, or if none would bid it would have been understood that it was a turkey five years ago. Either there would be working hardware, or the money wouldn’t get spent.
If there is a project that none would bid on, as seems possible for the Ares, then it is understood that the agency is not capable of that task. That would be a clear signal that the ‘experts’ in that field were not up to the job and would run the risk of losing whole departments that couldn’t get results in their field. The agency would need to get teams to produce with failure to do so carrying real penalties. Employees wouldn’t sign on to a project to be sacrificial goats to the bureaucrats and drones, so the bureaucrats and drones would need to support the teams in their own best interest.
With the truly productive getting projects and getting out, the agency drones would run out of workers to hide behind and could then be dismissed as excessive to the requirements of the agency. The congressmen gaining from the project pork would possibly support getting rid of people not getting them as much return in favor of the high profile projects they brought home. The high profile projects could get them more votes than the standing armies for this election, and the next one could be worried about later.