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Finding Common Ground

The disdain with which many engineers regard politicians is misplaced; central to both crafts is a continual need to compromise.

The year 1997 should be recorded in U.S. history as the Year of Compromise.

In a momentous decision announced last summer, the Democratic administration and the Republican leaders of Congress agreed to balance the budget by means of granting mutual concessions. President Clinton acceded to conservative demands for reduction in government spending and unprecedented reforms to welfare legislation. The Republicans approved increases in spending for education, as well as other costly programs they had sworn to oppose. Although each side was accused by party supporters of “selling out” in matters of hallowed principle, the public, by and large, seemed relieved that the harrowing gridlock of recent years was to be averted.

I’m intrigued by the parallels between this historic agreement and the practice of engineering. This is not an obvious association. Most engineers, after all, have a devotion to principle that has been nurtured in a professional environment where being right is essential, and abiding by standards is fundamental. And some aspects of political life are totally antithetical to engineering mores-for example, promising something that you know you cannot deliver.

The political ability to compromise, however, is closely allied to crucial aspects of the engineering method. The disdain with which many engineers commonly regard politicians is misplaced-or at least not as well thought through as it might be.

Look at how our politicians cope with the directives of a selfish, fickle, and essentially irrational, electorate. The American people call upon President Clinton to end the liberal, do-good spending of the past, balance the budget, reduce taxes, and do away with government interference. Incidentally, say the people, please be sure to maintain our entitlements, see that the needy do not suffer, put an end to crime, and generally guarantee that the good things that are done by government are maintained at the level to which we have become accustomed. Members of Congress receive similar contradictory messages, along with warnings about the consequences of failing to deliver the impossible.

Do the politicians say, as they have every right to say: Hey, are you kidding? No, they do not. They consider all the various demands, appraise the pushes and pulls of political and economic reality, and try to achieve agreement by compromise. We are a nation of accommodators. Yes, we admire statements of principle, and adherence to principle. Each of us hopes that gradual “progress”-as we interpret the word-can be achieved by means of persuasive debate. But in the short term, compromise is the only way to proceed, short of social disorder.

The engineering process is amazingly analogous. The public says to its engineers: give us products that are functional, durable, delightful to use, and most important, eminently affordable for most of our citizens. Oh, incidentally, make these products safe, nonpolluting, attractive, and while you’re at it, socially beneficial. And please take care to build your factories and power plants where we won’t see, hear, or smell them.

How do we engineers respond? Do we say: You must be kidding; you’re asking for the impossible? No we do not. We may grumble a bit, but then we do exactly what the politicians do; we compromise. We call it making trade-offs. Amid the socio-economic complexities of our age, good engineering demands no less.
In both engineering and politics, to be sure, there are certain fundamental responsibilities that cannot be abdicated. Engineers are committed to protecting public safety; governmental officials are sworn to maintain national security and public order and to keep people from starving in the streets. But beyond a few such basics, the greater morality demands that we settle our differences-after attempting persuasion-by granting mutual concessions.

Unhappily, while engineers have become adept at making judicious trade-offs in their work, they have not shown similar political skills in arranging their organizational affairs. The history of engineering societies in the United States, for example, is replete with feuds, schisms, and defections, both personal and doctrinal in origin. I believe that many engineering initiatives-such as seeking support for technology education and attempting to improve the public image of the profession-have been impeded by a failure of engineers to work together in harmony.

I propose that engineers try approaching human relations with a touch of the delicate diplomacy they have learned to apply to the complex and demanding technology of our times. Politics in engineering. It sounds strange, but it could lead to good things.

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