Monday, May 31, 2010

A 26-page brownie recipe

This NPR story gently pokes fun at government regulations, specifically the regulations that govern the production of combat rations. The story put me immediately in mind, of course, of the three years I enjoyed working in the world of military contracting at the Wornick Company in McAllen, Texas. (Those who know me may find this surprising -- I found it surprising myself. But I loved the people I worked with, and found the work itself interesting and progressively more challenging.)

As producers of combat and humanitarian rations, our lives were full of acronyms (MREs, HDRs, FRHs) and our work was guided by Mil-Spec -- military specifications. In fact, when we created a commercial version of the MRE, we called it Mil-Spec.

As the NPR story implies, military specifications are distinguished in two ways -- they can be very demanding and they can be very detailed. The reputation for demanding requirements is why we applied the specs to our own commercial product, so that we could have the bragging rights. (Exception: we did not include the FRHs, because it is often illegal to ship them.)

As the story emphasizes, though, the specifications can be detailed -- to an extent that may seem unreasonable, as a 26-page spec for a brownie might seem to an outsider. As the "comments" section on the NPR story illustrates, scoffing at such complexity as examples of bureaucratic over-reach and a way to squander public money.

From my perspective, however, the private sector is just as responsible for the Byzantine regulations as is anybody in the Pentagon. Why? Because private contractors -- even the honest ones such as Wornick -- will provide what is required: nothing more, nothing less. And contractors that fail to win contracts will file lawsuits. Because those lawsuits will not be defensible unless bidding is based on very specific contract requirements, the Pentagon provides extreme -- excruciating, even -- levels of detail about what it wants. Even for something as simple as a brownie, the contract might be awarded on the basis of a price difference of two-tenths of a cent per brownie. In this context, a common-sense understanding of a brownie plays no role.

(Incidentally, those acronyms mean Meal, Ready to Eat; Humanitarian Daily Ration; and Flameless Ration Heater.)

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