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Bright Shiny Object Syndrome

Monday January 6th, 2014   •   Posted by Craig Eyermann at 6:53am PST   •  

boston-logan-solar-panels One of the biggest unacknowledged psychological problems that many bureaucrats and politicians have goes by the initials BSOS, which stands for “Bright Shiny Object Syndrome”.

This is the unfortunate condition that develops whenever a politician, attracted by the marketing behind the technological fads of the day, or perhaps just the campaign contributions being offered by the lobbyists pushing them, chooses to set aside good judgment in pursuit of something that, invariably in retrospect, turns out to be a really big waste of both time and money.

Bill Schrier, the former Chief Technology Officer for the city of Seattle, Washington, explains the phenomenon as it relates to bureaucrats and politicians:

Government employees, including senior executives and elected officials, range the gamut from early adopters to tech troglodytes. And more than a few of them are afflicted with BSO syndrome. Sometimes that’s harmless, like the employee who has an iPod plus video camera plus digital camera plus iPad and maybe two kinds of Smart Phones. As long as “he” (they are usually men) uses his desktop computer with Windows XP for work, and operates all those gadgets on his own time, I see no harm in this.

A worse situation is a senior official who directs the government or department he/she leads to adopt the latest gee-whiz gadgets or web applications without connection to either the department’s business strategic plan or a coherent technology plan.

Or perhaps even to the real world itself. Forbes John Baldoni describes what can go wrong when chasing fads (the “bright shiny objects”) substitutes for sound judgment, which politicians with little real-world experience often do in the name of innovation:

Chasing bright shiny objects is not innovation. It’s the pursuit of the make-believe. Innovation, when it works, focuses creative endeavors on products or initiatives that have the potential to deliver value to customers. Bright shiny objects do just the opposite; they waste time and energy, and produce little in return.

Worse, the pursuit of bright shiny object-based projects can actually be destructive, meaning that society is worse off than it would be if the politicians and bureaucrats had more wisely chosen to do nothing at all.

The 2013 Wastebook provides a great example of where the pursuit of a poorly-considered “green energy” project, the technological fad for this particular example, has produced a bright shiny object lesson in wasteful spending, because the politicians and bureaucrats who implemented it failed to consider a critical need, with literally blinding results:

When officials at the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport in New Hampshire installed new solar panels, they did not anticipate one quarter of them would not be used 18 months later. In Spring 2012, the panels were placed on top of the airport’s parking garage, and 25 percent have remained there, covered with a tarp, rendering them useless.

Problems with the new panels were noticed almost immediately by air traffic controllers who claimed that for 45 minutes each day, glare made it difficult to oversee the airport’s runways. However, it is not as though glare was an unforeseen problem. Prior to the solar panel installation, the airport hired consulting firm Harris, Miller, Miller & Hanson to conduct a glare study and provide recommendations to avoid the problem. While the airport followed the firm’s recommendations, they were not able to avoid glare in the control tower. The firm received $41,570 for its work, despite the mishap, and has been asked by the airport to help solve the problem.

The panels were paid for through a $3.5 million grant from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which covered 95 percent of the total cost. According to estimates provided by airport officials, however, the solar panels may never recoup their costs to install. Operating at full capacity, the solar panels might save the airport as much as $100,000 annually in electricity costs, and only $2 million “over the 25 year life of the project.”

Moreover, the FAA released its own guidance on solar panel use at airports since mid-2012, after the panels were installed at Manchester Airport. It issued guidance in November 2010, but on June 26, 2012 – based on “new information and field experience” – cautioned airports against relying on it: “All users of this guidance are hereby notified that significant content in [the section on “Reflectivity] may be subject to change, and the FAA cautions users against relying solely on this section at this time.” The guidance was produced for the FAA by Harris, Miller, Miller & Hanson – the same contractor hired by the airport to conduct their own glare study.

At the end of August 2012, airport workers were “moving the tarps about every three weeks, depending on the angle of the sun,” calling the tarps a “temporary solution.” Information on the airport’s website noted they hoped the panels would “be repositioned and functioning at 100 percent capacity by next spring,” but as of August 2013 tarps remained on a large number of the solar panels.

Government logic: Spend $3.5 million to save $2 million over 25 years. Go figure.

We could have just as easily substituted any of the many examples being produced daily in the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. What other examples of projects gone wrong thanks to the Bright Shiny Object Syndrome of government officials can you name without too much effort?

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January 2014