NOAA’s low hanging problem–Part 8

Let’s talk about reality and inertia in a government organization, then.  Those two words are why the Independent Review Team’s (IRT’s) satellite “gap-filler” recommendation in its 2013 assessment will turn out to be a lot more taxpayer money spent with miniscule return.  The reality is the IRT’s recommendation is to and for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), an organization still unable to get the original Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) and Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES)-R satellite programs on track.  What the recommendation means, hypothetically, is another study would also need to be conducted to figure out the fastest way to get a gap-filler satellite constellation out there.

“Let me tell you something about TPS reports.”–a broken process

Of course, these are all guesses.  But maybe these are educated guesses, so let’s start.  The process of figuring out the fastest way to get satellites to a gap-filler constellation, once identified, would likely have to go through another process: a series of reviews (meetings), identifying key decision areas, identifying all stakeholders and defining their involvement, develop an initial and revised budget, then be coordinated through layers of managers for approval, more reviews, etc.  And don’t forget, there will also likely be a study about which would be the best payloads to use on these gap-filler satellites (should they go with the IRT’s recommendation, or add more?).  Then the stakeholders would have reviews about why those payloads are the best, lots of graphs and charts would be produced and more.

Of course, more people would need to be added to the NOAA program offices, because the current ones are already dealing with the JPSS and GOES-R programs (and apparently, they have issues).  Remember, more people equals more money.  Then, the new people would have to deal with the same upper managers the other NOAA programs had to deal with.

All of this—studies, processes, people, reviews–is organizational inertia, which all bureaucracies cherish.  An established bureaucracy is an unbending one.  An established and confused bureaucracy bends, loops, spirals, and obfuscates.  Considering the IRT’s assessments, which bureaucracy is the one the JPSS program most resembles?

The envelope, please…

And, here’s the kicker, the IRT also listed one issue, which while great sounding, is akin to switching horses mid-stream:  the JPSS team is not quite finished adopting the GOES-R governance model.  It was still a yellow issue according to the IRT.  So more time and money is being spent on restructuring the JPSS program office to mirror the GOES-R program office.  What about the time and money needed to work on JPSS?

Have any of you heard joke about the CEO talking to his incumbent and the three envelopes?  My revised version goes like this:

A new CEO asked the outgoing CEO for advice about dealing with different crises in the company.  The old CEO told the new one there were three envelopes in his top office desk drawer and to open one per crisis.  So everything seems fine until six months later, the company’s premier updated product was going to be late.  The new, frustrated, CEO opens the enveloped marked “1.”  Inside is a note—it says, “Blame the old CEO.”  The new CEO clings to this advice like barnacles to a ship’s hull and follows it.  Things seem to get better. 

But then, six months after that, a new crisis arises—no one is buying the company’s product.  The new CEO races to his office and tears open the enveloped marked “2.”  Inside, like the first envelope, is a note, but it contains just one word: “Reorg.”   Heartened by this rock-solid advice, the newly seasoned CEO implements the most thorough reorganization the company had seen in years.  And the company rebounded. 

The product, with some smart tweaking, was selling.  Unfortunately,the tweaking also made the product produce an unpleasant odor, and so the product didn’t sell, plus the company’s stock tanked.  The CEO wasn’t worried about these problems, though–he had the third envelope.  He opened the third envelope, expecting a note.  And there was.  On it was scribbled “Take three envelopes…”

In some ways, then, the IRT has opened the second envelope for the NOAA, and the “gap-filler” satellite solution is a re-org.  The IRT recognizes the established management cruft, the processes established for the sake of process, and the extra reviews are all a part of a program that likely won’t be fixed anytime soon, in spite of how positive the 2013 assessment sounds.

At the same time, the IRT didn’t, at least in the written assessment, suggest the programmatic model to follow for a streamlined and successful program.  The IRT is allowing the NOAA, whose processes the IRT itself identified (in a way) as already slow and cumbersome, to figure out what to choose, and then design the program from there.  It’s kind of the equivalent of the government approaching Goldman Sachs for advice about the best way to buy securities backed by risky mortgages–AFTER they’ve already publicly established a penchant for making bad decisions regarding that topic.

Wrapping it up

Is there true urgent need for building gap-filler satellites?  Not really.  Not urgent in the way a normal person might define the word.  Not urgent in the way an ambulance responds to an accident.  But it’s frustrating to see news outlets report basically a public release, repeating the urgent need, without looking into it closely and asking questions.  This, unfortunately, has been the norm for a while, and not just for this story.

Is there a chance the gap-filler satellite options would work?  Maybe.  But there are better, less expensive options, already discussed in post #4 of this series.  Ones not requiring the second envelope to even be considered.  Ones allowing the NOAA to focus on the one thing they are supposed to do with the JPSS program:  build a *!%#@ weather satellite for the nation, on time and in budget.

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