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Don’t Grumble About Farmers With Your Mouth Full

Posted By Axel Hoffmann and Ron Drake, Retired Members, Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Today, principals of America’s leading geospatial firms enjoy a large, mature and profitable market for their professional services, data products, and other goods and services.  Hundreds of millions of dollars in Federal, state and local government contracts, numerous commercial opportunities, and expanding new markets not even contemplated even a decade ago abound, keeping many firms busy even in the recent down economy.  Competition on contracts on the basis of qualifications with fees negotiated or awards based on best value, rather than the lowest bidder, is now the norm. To many firms, the most pressing challenge is not finding work, but finding qualified and trained workers.  Association meetings now feature open and cooperative presentations on best practices in the business, professional and technical ways of running enterprises.  And business-to-business strategic partnerships have become a common, everyday way of winning and executing projects.

This “embarrassment of riches” has not always been the case and should not be taken for granted.   Long before the term “geospatial” even entered our lexicon, hard work, political action, dedication and stamina by a group of visionary principals, owners and partners of a cadre of firms grounded in photogrammetry banded together to plot the rise of today’s private sector spatial data community.

Were it not for the perseverance and cohesiveness of these “founding fathers”, mapping and geospatial activities today would be characterized by government performance of most of the services and functions now routinely outsourced.  The few contracts let by government would be on a “down and dirty” low-bid basis.  Few mapping and geospatial services would be subject to either state licensing or private organization certification.  And each firm would play their cards close to the vest, sharing little information on how they function for fear of divulging critical information to an arch competitor.

The aforementioned is exactly what described the community in the early 1980’s. While not among the founders in 1982, we both served on the MAPPS Board of Directors in 1990’s and witnessed first-hand how the private geospatial community grew to what it is today.  Trust us -- nothing was handed to private mapping, photogrammetry and GIS firms.  The mature, healthy market we have today was hard earned.  

When MAPPS was formed in 1982, a few federal agencies, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation, and the Navy and Air Force contracted for topographic, planimetric or cadastral services.  Virtually the entirety of the USGS budget was dedicated to in-house staff salaries and equipment.  The Defense Mapping Agency, predecessor to today’s National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, contracted for printing and color separation work, to the lowest bidder, and drove several firms out of business.  The government workforce in surveying, mapping, charting and geodesy in agencies like the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration numbered in the thousands, while contracts from these agencies barely registered.  It was not that a qualified private sector did not exist.  It was simply ignored.  A 1973 report by the Federal Mapping Task Force on Mapping, Charting, Geodesy and Surveying (1973), convened by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) found “private cartographic contract capability is not being used sufficiently. We found this capacity to be broad and varied and capable of rendering skilled support ... Contract capability is a viable management alternative ... Its use should be encouraged in lieu of continued in-house build-up.''

For more than a decade, little was done to push for implementation of this recommendation.  No politically effective organization of mapping firms existed and it was not in Federal employees’ self interest to voluntarily privatize mapping activities.   So, in 1987, MAPPS hired as its first Executive Director, an ambitious and savvy young political professional, fresh from Capitol Hill – John Palatiello. The first order of business was to develop and implement a government relations strategy to advocate for increased utilization of the private sector for mapping activities. Meetings with Federal officials were held, at which the MAPPS leadership politely and respectfully promoted the capabilities of the private sector and sought a “win-win” balance between government and contractor performance of surveying, mapping, charting, geodesy and emerging GIS activities.  The MAPPS’ advocacy was greeted with responses from Federal officials that ranged from “over my dead body” to “if you ‘mom and pop’ firms make an investment in digital technology, we might throw some work your way” (The digital photogrammetry revolution had been ingrained in private firms more than 5 years earlier) to “we tried contracting, but you guys couldn’t get the job done” (but failing to admit the agencies’ lowest bidder procurement practices doomed the contracting experiment from the start).

The members of MAPPS were emboldened, not discouraged, when their offer of cooperation rather than competition was rejected by the agencies.  The private firm owners simply moved their political strategy from the agencies to the White House and the U.S. Congress.  

A three-pronged legislative approach was advocated: (1) increase the use and application of mapping data to government programs, activities and applications, (2) utilize the private sector for the collection and creation of mapping data and (3) clarify the requirement that the award of contracts for surveying and mapping be based on the qualifications of competing firms, just as Congress had intended when it enacted the “Brooks Act” for architecture-engineering and related services.

The privatization revolution of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan was taking hold, and MAPPS was committed to being part of it.  As a result, President Reagan’s last budget submission to Congress designated mapping as a highest priority Federal privatization opportunity.  The Clinton-Gore Administration proposed breaking up the NOAA hydrographic survey monopoly through competitive contracting by the private sector.  And when the Republicans won control of Congress in 1994, MAPPS won several appropriations bill provisions mandating contracting of mapping services to the private sector.

Today, the MAPPS Strategic Plan still embodies these three fundamental principles.  Whether it is direct federal activities, or grants to state agencies, such as DoTs, MAPPS continues to seek a balance between legitimate inherently governmental responsibilities and functions that are commercially available.  The association also maintains its promotion of increased use of geospatial and GIS applications to government programs ranging from environment to infrastructure, from defense and homeland security to agriculture, natural resources, demographics and health care.  And it continues to be part of the MAPPS agenda that competition based on qualifications ultimately gives the taxpayer the best return on investment.  These principles are now in numerous pieces of legislation that has become law, a large part of Federal policy, and a standard practice in many agencies.

Over the 35-year history of MAPPS, more than 100 individuals have been elected by their professional peers to steer the association as members of the Board of Directors.   The Board has consistently reached out to the membership to gauge sentiments on policy issues affecting private firms.  Each time, the members have reaffirmed their commitment to these principles, which at least one agency has dubbed “The Holy Grail” of MAPPS. While the road to today’s success has not always been easy, it has been necessary … and ultimately successful.  Along with our colleagues who have been on the MAPPS Board over these 35 years, beginning with our “Founding Fathers”, we have steadfastly worked to serve the public interest and the well being of our member firms.

In the 1980s, America’s farmers staged protests in Washington against low farm prices, parking tractors along The Mall, disrupting traffic, and lobbying Congress with campaign buttons and bumper stickers that read, “Don’t Grumble About Farmers With Your Mouth Full”.  (These protests also gave rise to the annual “Farm Aid” concerts that now feature leading rock and country music artists.)

Santayana once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  It is important that today’s generation of principals, owners, partners, and senior executives of private geospatial  firms, and their counterparts in government agencies, are knowledgeable and appreciative of the history of our profession, where we were, and how we came to where we are today.  Just as one should not grumble about farmers with one’s mouth full, newer MAPPS members should not reap the benefits of years of struggle and be critical of the sometimes aggressive, but ultimately successful, way MAPPS created today’s market.   A return to the way things were before the involvement of MAPPS would not be in anyone’s best interests.

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Axel Hoffmann, former owner of Hammon, Jensen, Wallen & Associates, Oakland, CA was a MAPPS Director from 1991 to 1994.  Ronald L. Drake a former owner/partner of Wilson & Company, Salina, KS, was a MAPPS Director from 1997 to 1999.

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