Separating responsibility for maintenance and acquisition

Last updated on July 24th, 2018 at 08:49 pm

Separating responsibility for maintenance and acquisition of technical assets can lead to uncontrolled growth of technical debt. When the performance of the business acquisition function or the performance of the development organization is measured without regard for the technical debt that arises as a consequence of their actions, technical debt is likely to expand unchecked. To limit such expansion, policymakers must devise performance measures that hold these organizations accountable for the technical debt arising from their actions.

Road damage in Warwick, Rhode Island, resulting from historic storms in March 2010
Road damage in Warwick, Rhode Island, resulting from historic storms in March 2010 [NOAA 2013]. The storms were so severe that at least one river flood gauge “flat-lined” — the floodwaters overtopped the gauge’s measurable range. Moreover, the National Weather Service (NWS) lacked a database of measurable ranges for flood gauges. Quoting the NWS report: “A lesson learned here was that maximum recordable river levels should be known by NWS staff, not only so staff aren’t surprised when this type of issue arises, but also to notify USGS personnel so that they can install a temporary gage and remove or elevate threatened equipment.” Technical debt, if ever I’ve seen it.
For systems consisting solely of software, separation of responsibility for system maintenance and system development or acquisition enables the acquiring organization to act with little regard for the consequences of its decisions vis-à-vis maintenance matters [Boehm 2016]. This is an unfortunate state of affairs that increases the rate of accumulation of new technical debt, and increases the lifetime of legacy technical debt, because the MICs associated with the technical debt aren’t borne by the acquiring organization.

For example, a focus on performance of the organization that’s responsible for acquisition biases them in favor of attending to the direct and immediate costs of the acquisition, with little or no regard for ongoing maintenance issues. The maintenance organization is then left to deal with whatever the acquired system contains (or lacks).

An analogous mechanism operates for organizations that develop, market, and maintain products or services with software elements in their respective infrastructures. In that case, separation of the development function from the maintenance function enables the development function to act independently of the consequences of its decisions for maintenance matters.

But the separation-of-responsibilities mechanism that leads to uncontrolled technical debt isn’t restricted to software. Any technological asset that has ongoing maintenance needs (and most of them do) can potentially present this problem.

For example, in the United States, and many other countries, two streams of resources support publicly-owned infrastructure [Blair 2017]. The funding stream covers construction, operations and maintenance, and repairs. Its usual sources are taxes, tolls, licenses, other user fees, sale of ad space, and so on. The financing stream covers up-front construction costs, to bridge the period from conception through construction, until the funding stream begins delivering resources. The financing stream usually comes from bond sales.

Although both streams are controlled by legislatures, or by agencies they establish, the effects of the two streams differ fundamentally. The financing stream is dominant in the early stages of the asset’s lifecycle — during construction. The funding stream is dominant after that — when maintenance and operations are most important. Legislators and agencies are generally reluctant to supply funding because of the impact on taxpayers and users. Legislators and agencies find financing much more palatable. For this reason, among others, U.S. infrastructure maintenance is generally under-resourced, and technical debt gradually accumulates.

So it is with technological assets in organizations. For accounting purposes, capital expenses are treated differently from operational expenses, and the result is that operational expenses can have a more significant impact on current financial results than capital expenses do. This leads organizations to underfund operations and maintenance, which contributes to the accumulation of technical debt.

Control of new technical debt accumulation and enhancement of technical debt retirement rates is possible only if the acquisition or development organizations can somehow be held accountable for the MICs that result from their actions. Securitization of the debt incurred, as I’ll address in a forthcoming post, is one possible means of imposing this accountability. But reserves are also required, because some of the debt incurred might not be known at the time the asset is acquired or created.

Separation of responsibility for system maintenance and system acquisition or system development is actually a form of stovepiping. See “Stovepiping can lead to technical debt” for more on stovepiping.

References

[Blair 2017] Hunter Blair. “No free bridge: Why public–private partnerships or other ‘innovative’ financing of infrastructure will not save taxpayers money,” Economic Policy Institute blog, March 21, 2017.

Available: here; Retrieved: January 29, 2018

Cited in:

[Boehm 2016] Barry Boehm, Celia Chen, Kamonphop Srisopha, Reem Alfayez, and Lin Shiy. “Avoiding Non-Technical Sources of Software Maintenance Technical Debt,” USC Course notes, Fall 2016.

Available: here; Retrieved: July 25, 2017

Cited in:

[NOAA 2013] NOAA/National Weather Service. “The March, 2010 Floods in Southern New England,” WFO Taunton Storm Series Report #2013-01, January 2013.

Available: here; Retrieved: January 30, 2018

Cited in:

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