Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Congress falls victim to the planning fallacy

Every now and then we need a refreshing reminder that humans cannot plan things, especially when they are not spending their own money. The Washington Post has done a fine job of exposing this with their piece on the construction of the Capitol Visitor Center:
Take, for example, spending. What was proposed as a $71 million project in the early 1990s became a $265 million endeavor a decade later. By the time work got underway in 2002, the price tag was up to $368 million. Tomorrow, the ribbon will be cut on a $621 million project...

The project once was expected to be finished in time for the presidential inauguration -- in January 2005. As that date neared, the center was about half done, so the completion date was bumped ahead to spring 2006.

Six months after President Bush was sworn in for a second term, the Government Accountability Office reported that the architects and contractors were making so many mistakes and facing so many unexpected problems that March 2007 was probably more realistic.
The center finally opened yesterday, towards the end of 2008. There is a tendency to dismiss this type of failure with the explanation if we only had the right humans in office the result would have been different. But the planning fallacy is universal-- Daniel Kahneman himself fell victim to it when he tried to write a book on cognitive biases.

Bottom line: Sooner or later we will have to admit that we are flawed and take the necessary steps to constrain our inevitable failures. Hopefully this will happen sooner rather than later, but I wouldn't plan on it.