In comments at the previous post on this subject, Karl Hallowell comments:
It’s not government’s job to suck up risk for a contractor. As I see it, if contractors really were giving their best cost estimates, then they’re regularly overestimate prices not consistently underestimate them.
The other commenters who seem to think that designing a brand new UAV, or the first successful hit to kill missile (SRHIT/ERINT/PAC-3, not the dead end HOE), or an autonomous helicopter (all things I’ve been heavily involved with) is something that can and should be done on a fixed-price contract (after all, one bridge is like any other, right?) . . . it can maybe be done, but only if you’re willing to let system development take a lot longer.
I don’t know who posted this, but it’s unrealistic.
Let’s give an example of how the real world works in salvaging ships on the high seas:
Salvage work has long been viewed as a form of legal piracy. The insurers of a disabled ship with valuable cargo will offer from 10 to 70 percent of the value of the ship and its cargo to anyone who can save it. If the salvage effort fails, they don’t pay a dime. It’s a risky business: As ships have gotten bigger and cargo more valuable, the expertise and resources required to mount a salvage effort have steadily increased. When a job went bad in 2004, Titan ended up with little more than the ship’s bell as a souvenir. Around the company’s headquarters in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, it’s known as the $11.6 million bell.
Exactly the scenario where it is claimed that fixed price contracts can’t work. Huge risk, lots of uncertainty, time pressure. A similar example is oil well firefighters. As I see it, there’s almost no circumstances when government needs to help the contractor with risk. The money, paid when the job is done right, does that. If it’s not enough, then nobody takes the contract. Simple as that.
Yes. The reason that cost-plus contracts are preferred by government is that government, by its nature, has an aversion to profit. It’s the same sort of economic ignorance that drives things like idiotic “anti-gouging” laws, and it results in the same false economy for the citizens and taxpayers.
The problem isn’t that companies are unwilling to bid fixed price on high-tech ventures. The problem is that, in order to do so, they have to build enough profit into the bid to make it worth the risk. But the government views any profit over the standard one in cost-plus contracts (generally less than ten percent) as “obscene,” and to allow a company to make more profit than that from a taxpayer-funded project is a “ripoff.” So instead, they cap the profit, and reimburse costs, while also having to put into place an onerous oversight process, in terms of cost accounting and periodic customer reviews, that dramatically increases cost to the taxpayer, probably far beyond what they would be if they simply let it out fixed price and ignored the profit. I would argue that instead of the current model of cost-plus, lowest bidder, an acceptance of bid based on the technical merits of the proposal, history and quality of the bidding team, even if the bid cost is higher, will ultimately result in lower costs to the government (and taxpayer).
As I understand it, this is the battle that XCOR (hardly a risk-averse company, at least from a business standpoint) has been waging with NASA for years. XCOR wants to bid fixed price, and accept the risk (and the profits if they can hit their internal cost targets), while NASA wants them to be a cost-plus contractor, with all of the attendant increases in costs, and changes in corporate culture implied by that status.
This is the debate that will have to occur if John McCain wants to make any headway in his stated desire Friday night to get rid of cost-plus contracts. Unfortunately, he’s not in a very good philosophical position to argue his case, because he’s one of those economic simpletons in Washington who think that making money is ignoble, and that profits are evil, particularly when they’re so high as to be “obscene.”