Murphy's Law: The Low Bidder And John Doe


January 11, 2009: The U.S. Army recently got an embarrassing lesson in what happens when you do not pay attention to details. Put simply, the army sent out letters to family members of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. All the letters began with "Dear John Doe", instead of the name of the recipient. Sounds pretty dumb. And it is. The letters were to inform the family members about private organizations that offer assistance for the families of soldiers who died in Iraq and Afghanistan. This was part of a series of communications with these family members (often more than one for each deceased soldier.)

Getting this letter composed and sent out should have been a simple matter, if someone at the army end had double checked the work of the contractor who did the mailing. Such mailings are often contracted out to "letter shops" that duplicate the letter, address and stuff the envelopes, and mail the letters. The letter shops use the same type of "mail merge" software you may have on your PC (and never used). The software prints the address on the envelope, and puts a copy of the letter, with the proper name in the salutation ("Dear Jane Smith" or whatever). Letter shops have equipment to do all this automatically. But mistakes can happen, usually in the form of operator error. In this case, the person running the equipment didn't notice that they had screwed while setting up the job and had not instructed the software to take the name from the address and put it in the salutation of the letter. The software defaults to "John Doe" for the salutation if not told to take a name from a database of names, or names and addresses.

Commercial firms, as well as government organizations, have thousands of jobs like this done every week. With that amount of work, there's always a chance for someone to screw up. Organizations that want to avoid errors like that from getting to the recipient, either hire letter shops with excellent reputations, or have one of their people double check the work. One problem government organizations have is that they must hire the low bidder. Over the last century (since this practice became common) there have been endless jokes about the poor results the troops get from using equipment and services obtained from the "low bidder." Commercial organizations can pay more to hire firms that have good enough management and practices to get it right every time. You do have to pay extra for that. For the military, the solution is to provide some extra supervision for the "low bidders" they are forced to use. Otherwise, you'll end up with things like the "Dear John Doe" letters.


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