Wednesday, January 31, 2007

"I am the Commandant of the Coast Guard, I am responsible, I will do this right."

Today, the Commandant of the Coast Guard was on the Hill, testifying before members of the House of Representatives. You can find his prepared statement here, thanks to CG Information. Pretty clear that Admiral Allen is taking the heat, and the blame. I wonder if he has now spent all his political capital on this issue.

Today I was speaking with a senior CG officer, someone who had intimate knowledge of the Deepwater program. He suggested to me that "It's worse than you can imagine" and that "the whole truth has yet to come out." Boy, I hope that's not the case. The scuttlebutt is that this could ruin Admiral Allen's tenure as commandant; it could "take him down" and forever scorch his legacy.

That would suck, plain and simple.

I believe Admiral Allen is being above board, transparent, and honest. I hope I'm not naive.

Over at Govexec.com, Katherine McIntire Peters notes that Admiral Allen wasn't involved in many of the decisions that led to the current state of affairs.
Coast Guard technical experts warned of design flaws as early as 2002. In March 2004, then-Assistant Commandant Rear Adm. Erroll Brown outlined several major areas of concern in a memorandum to then-Program Executive Officer Rear Adm. P.M. Stillman. Brown wanted to halt the program until technical concerns could be addressed after ICGS "unilaterally closed the structural comments and concerns and ended any collaborative effort ... without reaching a resolution."

Senior Coast Guard leaders decided to go ahead to prevent the schedule from slipping and further driving up costs. They planned to address the technical problems by retrofitting the first cutter. Delivery of the first cutter is scheduled for August; the second is under construction and scheduled for October 2008. Brown and Stillman, along with other key decision-makers at the time, have since retired. Allen became commandant last May.
That he wasn't in the position of key decision maker didn't stop Admiral Allen from taking the blame; he didn't attempt to pass the buck, at all.

In his prepared remarks, Allen discusses a bit on pre-Deepwater history:
By the mid 1990s, most of our ships and aircraft were approaching the end of their service lives. Our cutter fleet was then, and remains, one of the oldest among the world’s naval fleets. Some of our cutters are old enough to be eligible for Social Security! In light of a looming block fleet obsolescence, it wasn’t sensible to attempt piecemeal, one-for-one replacement of each class of assets. We also didn’t have the capacity to manage that many projects in parallel.

Because of anticipated funding constraints and competing requirements, we knew an innovative approach was required. And because maritime threats were evolving in the post-Cold War environment in which Deepwater was conceived, we knew expectations for maritime security were changing as well, so our asset mix would need to support these dynamic requirements. We determined, therefore, that it would be most cost effective and efficient to acquire a wholly integrated system of ships, aircraft, sensors and communications systems, or, as it is commonly called, a “system of systems.” The idea is based on the concept that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; all elements combine to generate greater capabilities across the entire system. Given that, our goal is not to replace ships, aircraft, and sensors with more ships, aircraft, and sensors, but to provide the Coast Guard with the functional capabilities required to safely achieve mission success.
Okay, I buy that. I also know that our level of competence for acquisition likely wasn't up-to-snuff to take this one. Many people in the field suspected as such, at least anecdotally.
This wholly-integrated acquisition strategy called for progressive modernization, conversion and recapitalization using a mix of new and legacy assets, replacing those that are obsolete, while upgrading existing ones until a new fleet is acquired. This complex strategy, and the fact that the Coast Guard had not built a ship the size of the National Security Cutter for over three decades, drove our decision to engage the services of a system integrator with proven technical expertise in the acquisition of large systems. Following a rigorous, multiple year selection process, the result was our contract with Integrated Coast Guard Systems (ICGS), a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.

Adding to the program’s complexity was adoption of an innovative performance-based acquisition strategy. Compared to more traditional methods, performance-based acquisition is designed to promote innovation and spread risk more evenly between government and industry. However, it is still a relatively new discipline, with an accompanying learning curve, that continues to invite appropriate scrutiny from our overseers, including Congress, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General (OIG).
Okay, so maybe it wasn't such a big secret we were missing some corporate knowledge.

Anyway, Admiral Allen later notes that "recent media coverage has overlooked significant Deepwater accomplishments." The downside to his list is that most of the items are aeronautical in nature. Deepwater has had pretty decent success on the aviation side; it's the naval side, with the 123's and the NSC, that things are looking damn awful.

Admiral Allen also notes some "challenges in program execution."
The innovative Deepwater program is large and complex and I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the challenges we have faced in the areas of program management and contract execution. Our performance-based acquisition strategy has created unique contracting and management challenges for the Coast Guard and our industry partners. In my view, some of these come from the need for an integrated Coast Guard, that unifies our technical authority, requirements owner, and our acquirers in a way that allows early and efficient adjudication of problems and ensures transparency so that Coast Guard would be capable of working successfully with ICGS on a simultaneous and complex acquisition of this size. We knew early on that this acquisition would be transformational for our Service, but we have to actively manage that transformation and not allow this acquisition to manage us. We are aggressively tackling and correcting these problems.

And clearly, we have experienced some failures in the Deepwater Program. The planned conversion of 110-foot patrol boats to 123 feet as a bridging strategy until new assets came online to fill the patrol gap has failed.
In Capital Hill speak, "we have experienced some failures" and "has failed" are more than just words. He's owned up.

But, he's not letting it just stay put. Like the whole study following the recent dive deaths, Admiral Allen is showing his desire for organizational learning:
The failure of the 123-foot patrol boat project is unacceptable. I have established a group of legal, contracting, and engineering experts to examine the process at all stages, from beginning design work until we tied up the boats. I have directed this group to establish responsibility and propose measures to prevent similar problems in the future. We will work aggressively with ICGS to reach resolution and put this behind us.
I'm all with that, but I'm wondering why we are giving the Deepwater contractor the chance to build the quick-fix, off-the-shelf, patrol boat replacement. I say we go with another contractor; let ICGS eat cake, frankly.
We’ve learned from this experience. Adjudication of technical concerns within the Coast Guard could have been accomplished more efficiently. Existing organizational barriers made it harder for us to jointly address concerns and develop mutually acceptable solutions. We also could have been more proactive in informing Congress–and this Subcommittee–about fatigue concerns. One of my axioms is that “transparency of information breeds self-correcting behavior;” I assure you that as we move forward that transparency will be my watchword.
I just hope that everyone else has the same watchword. We have years and years of culture which is anti-transparency; it's hard to cut through all that culture to create something new. Not everyone agrees with this notion of transparency, and I can imagine that some people may work to keep secrets and box people out.

Well, do read Admiral Allen's full testimony; don't rely on my take for what he said... or didn't say.

And, while you're at it, do read the Inspector General's report that started the latest hail storm; you can find it here.

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