Performance Attrition

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.

The following two tabs change content below.


I do construction for a living and aerospace as an occasional hobby. I am an inventor and a bit of an entrepreneur. I've been self employed since the 1980s and working in concrete since the 1970s. When I grow up, I want to work with rockets and spacecraft. I did a stupid rocket trick a few decades back and decided not to try another hot fire without adult supervision. Haven't located much of that as we are all big kids when working with our passions.

Latest posts by johnhare (see all)

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Performance Attrition

  1. Chris (Robotbeat) says:

    I don’t think that early retirement is really a good incentive. Very often, highly motivated people work more for the intangibles than for the money. What about some sort of tenure or honor system, where special recognition is given, including a monetary prize (benefits) but with most of the value being in the intangible recognition, like the Nobel Prize?

    I don’t see why it’s good to reward your best workers with kicking them out of future projects, even if it is optional.

  2. C Garner says:

    Perhaps the prize could be altered, as Chris suggests, and the idea be broadened to allow any group to bid, ie outside of NASA.
    That would, perhaps even more so, make NASA work harder and more efficiently in order to be able to capture the projects. Otherwise, ‘Newspace’ gets another chance to prove it’s worth.

  3. Sean says:

    If they’re working with full retirement as a team benefit, I’d join the team just to avoid getting stuck operating the system they came up with.

  4. I just wish the merry-go-round of pork would get started again so I can go back to ignoring NASA. All this hope is getting annoying.

  5. mike shupp says:

    If this is a workable scheme for NASA, it likely is a workable scheme for other enterprises which engage in R&D — DARPA, Merck, Ford Motor Company, Boeing, Pfizer, Panasonic, Apple Computer….

  6. john hare says:

    They might not be able to work within that department after blazing through a project bypassing the spear carriers, so there needs to be solid assurance that their careers won’t get torpedoed later by the ones they pissed off during the project. Intangibles are important, but they won’t buy the new boat, so put some serious tangibles in the incentive.

    C Garner,
    Outsiders are not on the same playing field, thinking of Ares I vs Atlas, Delta, and Falcon.

    So at least you would come up with a working system on time and budget instead of more powerpoint engineering. The next project award could be for more operability.


    My company profits and product quality steadily climbed after I finally got a working bonus system in place. I believe you are right.

  7. J Lomas says:

    Can’t agree more – incentive=results. I used to work for a company which paid a monthly bonus on sales. Lets just say it worked as in the 12 years I was there it was only around 9 months when we missed our targets and even then was due to a national strike in the mines (yes, I’m from the U.K.). 2 months after the miners went back, we started recieving bonuses once more as our sales went up. We were lucky that no-one got laid off even if o/t was cut. This is something which may not happen with govt. organizations – least for the most part… O/T? Probably!

  8. Kelly Starks says:

    THis all sound cool, but NASA is a civil service organization (so there are laws driving pay, promotions, etc that reward inefficecy and bloat. Mandates for promotions only by the rules, etc), operating under political popularity and pork as budget approval drivers.

    So what applicability is any of the concepts discused, in the face of their being against federal law?

  9. john hare says:

    As ever Kelly, you provide strong arguments for closing down the agency. For those of us that would like to see some space related results though, finding ways to reward performance and penalize incompetance is an interesting subject.

  10. jsuros says:

    Are you really all that sure that closing down NASA is not a positive space related result?

  11. john hare says:

    I’m less sure on odd days of even years.:-) I think space will be opened up with or without NASA. I think it would be in everybodys best interest if a way could be found to exploit the talent and experience of some of the individuals there.

  12. Paul says:

    But this only works if the NASA team is actually doing the work. If they are just doling out contracts, the temptation for corruption is too great. A contractor offers the team leader a guaranteed $1.5m/yr job if he “bids” for, and then awards their company, a $2.6B contract on generous terms (with no oversight.) Program fails, manager (and team) are sacked, manager walks into high paid job, company gets $2.6B worth of subsidised R&D.

    You might say, “There’ll be rules to prevent that,” but isn’t this already a problem with government (especially military) procurement? Dropping oversight just amplifies the risk.

  13. Pete says:

    The continual flashes of NASA hope, which always seem to get sucked back to the status quo, are definitely getting annoying – fool me once…

    If all the time and energy that people have spent over the years bemoaning NASA could have instead been applied to developing CATS, what might have been accomplished by now? Is bemoaning NASA really worth the opportunity cost? They will only end up doing what their vested interests tell them to do, and any incremental reform will always be a couple of steps behind the real action.

  14. Kelly Starks says:

    > john hare

    > As ever Kelly, you provide strong arguments for closing down the
    > agency. For those of us that would like to see some space related
    > results though, finding ways to reward performance and penalize
    > incompetance is an interesting subject.

    I would also prefer maintaining a NASA adn siome results out of it — but given touching on a issue (lack of reward for performance) thats common across all civil servent agencies in the US, you really need to think about the cause.

  15. Kelly Starks says:

    > jsuros

    >==Are you really all that sure that closing down NASA is not
    > a positive space related result?

    Pretty hard for commercial space to develop if half its market adn about all the maned market (I.E. NASA) closes. Past that, it really is a good idea to have a gov agency to push development and testing of cutting edge systems. Ok NASA has ran from the later for a few decades, but they are driven by politics. So is theres votes in new aerospace tech dev, they will be motivated to do it.

  16. Kelly Starks says:

    Hum, just a thought – but a lot of the current state and fed budget troubles are due to the same kind of civil service rules. So there might be some political traction for reform?

    On the other hand, the brain dead civil service rules were done to lock out a lot of past corruption, and the civil service unions are a major political power base for dems. Thats why they were willing to lower us airport security after 9-11 to unionize the the jobs that now form TSA.

  17. john hare says:

    That would definately be a killer of this idea even if it were possible to implement it. While it’s hard to see how it could be worse that Ares, creative minds with incentive could manage as you say. It’s hard to see how so much could go on already without any legal action resulting.

    I just caught part of an article that there is a million or so a year being spent on settling harrassment suits by congressmen, and they don’t have to pay any of it themselves. How can we expect the agencies they supervise to do any better?

  18. Paul says:

    “it’s hard to see how it could be worse that Ares”

    Now available as either a t-shirt or a bumper-sticker. Order now!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *