THE BOTTOM LINE

Those who speak of visions usually have an audience of one

Bob Little

When I want light, amusing reading and can't find a Dave Barry column I haven't read, I skim articles and various government documents for the word vision. It's always good for a laugh.

When a captain of industry or a political high pooh-bah uses the word, it means he hasn't got a clue. He's instead relying on a mystical experience to proved the answers to the question at hand.

So it was with great glee that I leapt upon the following sentence issued from the new Department of Military Lord High Acquisitioner (LHA), to wit:

"DOM's new acquisition vision proves a process that enables us to maintain our technological superiority by fielding (to our users) the best systems, with available technologies that are supportable, interoperable and affordable, in less time and at less cost. Achieving these goals will require us to change the way we think about new systems."

This type of vision is what Dr. Rutherford T. Banal describes in his book, Hallucinations for Dummies, as the platitude vision.

A platitude vision has three characteristics: It is subjective to the person having the vision; it lacks originality, and it would be obvious to a third-grader of normal intellect.

The first criterion allows vision seers to convince themselves that they are the ones who have been chosen to receive the revealed truth that is the essential element of visions. Such truths are as unassailable as motherhood and apple pie. They are not subject to a recount; they must be interpreted.

The second criterion emphasizes the fact that the vision, although news to the seer, is obsolete on arrival to virtually anyone else who has ever thought about the issue. It demonstrates conclusively that the seer has never considered the matter before.

The third criterion underscores that the platitude vision's implications hit home to a fairly narrow set of thinkers'that is, one. In truth, everyone has platitude visions; they're usually classified as idle thoughts.

To test Dr. Banal's definition, let's look at some of the quoted language a little more closely. Note first that the LHA saw a vision in which systems would be fielded "to our users." The statement indicates that until that point, the LHA was convinced that systems were for the purpose of generating revenue and that they were moved out of the factory because room was needed for new systems to make revenue. It must have been quite a surprise to the LHA that systems had actual users. Criterion 1, check.

The statement that systems should use only available technologies catches criteria 2 and 3. Unavailable technologies are impossible to use. Almost everyone knows this.

To the LHA's credit there was one benefit to the vision: It answered, sort of, the ancient question of what is meant by the phrase, "Close enough for government work."

The revelation grows from the insight that future technologies, although meeting the definition of unavailable, might become available during the locust-plague life cycle of a development program. In this situation the question becomes: "How much of a technology-short system will the government accept?" or "How close is 'close enough'?" The answer'drum roll, please'is 80 percent!

In some situations, we in government will develop systems that are based 80 percent on available technology and leave a 20 percent placeholder for future technology.

But it's not clear how this "spiral-in" approach, as it is affectionately known in military circles, is supposed to work.

How do you calculate 80 percent of a system that incorporates technology that does not exist yet? How can any system work if it isn't made entirely of available technology?

Apparently, you've got to have that vision thing.

Bob Little, an attorney who has worked for the General Accounting Office and a Washington law firm, teaches federal contract law. E-mail him at rlittle13@aol.com.

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