Public Service: Engineerings Next Challenge
While some in the industrial engineering profession feel that engineers have no place in politics, this perspective is ruinous. It leaves unrealized the potential for industrial engineers to influence the development of legislation so that their specialized knowledge can be applied toward the resolution of important social problems. It is vital that professional industrial engineers question this outlook. It is also vital that professional industrial engineers assist in the development of an educational framework that promotes public activism in accordance with principles set forth in the engineering code of ethics.
I first discovered the effective “self-removal” of professional engineers from public service during the 2002 Institute of Industrial Engineers (IIE) Region XII University Conference. There I approached a senior director within the IIE organization to inquire how he viewed the possibility of industrial engineers taking on a leadership role in government service. The director’s answer, much to my surprise at the time, was that engineers simply have no place in politics. He went on to suggest that any engineer involved in political activities simply allowed politicians to ride on the coattails of his or her professional work. His opinion was that engineers should stick to the private sector and avoid voluntary involvement in a government that is ineffective at best.
The engineer cited above does make a good point: if engineers remain background players in the political process then, yes, they do simply serve to drive the careers of professional politicians. However, that is not the role I am suggesting. Rather, engineers have the ability to bring a non-political perspective—political meaning weighed down with partisan politics or constant desire for reelection—to the legislative process. I believe that the engineer has the authority, the knowledge, and the ability to take on a leadership role in government and to lobby on behalf of the general public.
Continuing my research, I was led to a disturbing finding: The constitution of the primary industrial engineering professional organization, the Institute of Industrial Engineers, contains language that supports the isolation of engineers from public service. The following is a brief excerpt taken from the model constitution that IIE provides to both new and existing chapters as a reference document. In Article II, section seven, the model constitution requires that “no part of the activities of the Corporation shall be the carrying on of propaganda or otherwise attempting to influence legislation.” In so defining its purpose, IIE explicitly removes itself from public service and implicitly suggests, as an organization representing the views of its members, that it is not the role of any industrial engineer to participate in activities that impact legislation.
In contrast, analysis of the engineering code of ethics reveals that the principles and canons upon which the profession of engineering is founded call for engineers to be active participants in the public sector. Upon reviewing the code of ethics, it becomes clear that engineers are committed to the application of their knowledge and tools for the “enhancement of human welfare.” Additionally, the code makes reference to the fact that engineers must place the safety and health of the public at the top of their professional priorities. Finally, the code emphasizes that, “Engineers shall issue public statements […]” Though each of these passages is open to interpretation, together they indicate that engineers have an obligation to the general public, including that of speaking out in the public forum when necessary.
Many argue that engineers do not have the abilities required to succeed in social endeavors; however, I do not believe this to be true. Effective government necessitates that its participants possess an understanding of social problems and an ability to realize the proper solutions to those problems. Industrial engineers can meet this challenge by empirically deconstructing political and social issues prominent in public forums and popular media sources. IE is, after all, an engineering of process improvement, and what is our governing body other than a bureaucratic process? From the inputs of public opinion and social need to the outputs of legislation and government action, the process of public policy making can be easily mapped and refined. Industrial engineers have the skills to do so.
Specifically, industrial engineering teaches a number of methods that potentially allow for the translation of public need into public policy. Industrial engineers are experts in analysis, planning, efficiency, project management, and organization. They routinely apply such techniques as Value Stream Mapping to complex chains of production and they develop process flow descriptions for assembly operations requiring literally millions of components. These skills are invaluable when considering such tasks as assessing the transportation needs of a metropolitan area, evaluating the environmental health of our cities, establishing adequate utility networks, designing systems for information collection and assessment, revising urban infrastructure to address such social problems as hunger and disease, and providing adequate fire and disaster protection to the general public.
With skills as vast as these, industrial engineers are capable of contributing to public policy and they are well equipped to handle public policy issues. However, this potential is without value unless a framework that encourages such action is developed. Such a framework would consist of at least three components: professional organizations, industry, and academic institutions. At the base of this framework lie engineering schools where it is currently ingrained within the very educational system that the engineering discipline is isolated from other fields. Due to the high unit requirements of technical degrees and the physical design of college campuses, engineering students are often left with a limited introduction to the social sciences and, at times, even their social science peers. IIE must work with academic institutions to revise engineering programs so that students gain this valuable exposure. Additionally, if a revision of academic programs is to prove successful, then the demand for such progress must come from those engineers who participate in the hiring and accreditation processes. It is vital that, as an organization dedicated to the development of the industrial engineering profession and the continued education of those in the IE field, IIE work to encourage its members to advocate for such change. Equally critical are the symbolic actions of engineering professional organizations. As has been illustrated through analysis of the IIE model constitution, many of these organizations document formal statements that warn against political involvement. An effort to amend and revise these prohibitions must symbolically be at the heart of any change in engineering’s public role.
Fortunately, IIE is not alone in this endeavor and some pieces of the framework outlined above are currently in place. At the academic level, for example, the University of Southern California has recently begun to assemble student and faculty committees with the goal of assessing both the strengths and weaknesses of USC’s engineering curriculum. This development comes in response to a revised set of standards against which engineering colleges nation wide must be held accountable. On a professional level, a handful of trailblazing individuals, such as Edward Wenk, Jr. and USC’s Najmedin Meshkati, have made a commitment to publicly criticize the lack of social involvement that persists among engineers. Additionally, small associations of engineers, such as Engineers for Social Responsibility in New Zealand, have been formed with the intent to address relevant social issues utilizing traditional engineering techniques. In the case of the nuclear weapons debate, ESR has even gone so far as to print documentation that advocates the reduction of nuclear arms.
Professional industrial engineers will often say that government is ineffective and that it fails to represent the public or address important social needs. However, it is through self-exclusion that the members of our profession have allowed a political system to develop which fails to reflect our interests. Only through taking an active role in this system can we hope to be represented by—and benefit from—its activities. Industrial engineering has much to offer the field of public policy should its potential be explored by a socially minded and professional membership. To offer a brief, yet powerful source of inspiration, it is interesting to remember that two of the most influential political minds in United States history, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, were themselves scientists, engineers, great thinkers, and great political leaders—I, for one, would not hesitate to be considered among their associates.
Engineers for Social Responsibility. Engineers for Social Responsibility. 24 Feb. 2003.
Institute of Industrial Engineers, Incorporated. Bylaws of the Institute of Industrial
Engineers, Incorporated. 24 Feb. 2003. .
—. Engineering Code of Ethics. 24 Feb. 2003. .
Meshkati, Najmedin. “Time to reduce area’s rail carnage.” The Orange County Register
19 Feb. 2003:Opinion.
Wenk, Edward Jr. “Teaching Engineering as a Social Science.” ASEE PRISM Dec.