Culture eats policy

published on 2023/06/25

To understand how things backfired, you’ll need to drop down from the bird’s eye view from which we normally see the bureaucracy all the way to the ground. You’ll need to see the problem of implementation of government policy through the eyes of Matthew Weaver of the U.S. Digital Service, who was literally reaching for the ground: He was trying to get data from satellites in space to ground stations, so that the Global Positioning System would continue to work. (See his account here.)

Weaver had been brought to Raytheon, the company the Air Force had hired to write the software for the next generation GPS satellites, because the Raytheon team was behind schedule and over budget. This issue of data transmission to the ground stations and back again was one of a few problems that was holding them back. There is an industry standard way of doing this, a simple, reliable protocol that is built into almost every operating system in the world.

But this team wasn’t using this simple protocol on its own. Instead, the team had written a piece of software to receive the message from that protocol, read the data, and then recode it into a different format, so they could feed it into a very complex piece of software called an Enterprise Service Bus, or ESB. The ESB eventually delivered the data to yet another piece of software, at which point the whole process ran in reverse order to deliver it back to the original, simple protocol. Because the data was taking such a roundabout route, it wasn’t arriving quickly enough for the ground stations to make the calculations needed. Using the simple protocol alone would have made the entire job a snap—as easy as nailing a couple of boards together. Instead, they had this massive Rube Goldberg contraption that was never going to work.

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