Kelman: An open letter to 1102s

It's a tough time for contracting officers, but innovation is needed more than ever

(Editor's note: 1102 is the job classification for a contract specialist or contracting officer.)

Dear 1102s : These are tough times to be in contracting. As one career procurement professional recently wrote in an e-mail to me: "Those of us involved in [Hurricane Katrina relief contracting] have been talking among ourselves that contracting officers are criticized if they award things quickly for wasting money -- fleecing America. And if they try to step back and take a day or two to complete something, they are inflexible bureaucrats who aren't getting help to the public. Who would want to work in that environment?"

Recently, the New York Times published a story criticizing post-Katrina no-bid contracts and another criticizing the Small Business Administration for delays in getting out recovery loans.

Another procurement professional wrote: "Morale continues to be at an all-time low, and contracting professionals are frozen in place rather than thinking creatively. I cannot tell you the last time I heard the word 'innovation' used. Now that really scares me."

The relentless focus on "cronyism" and contractor fraud -- and on blame and punishment as ways to deal with problems -- is devastating the contracting system's ability to provide the best value for taxpayers and agency missions. This focus is taking one of many issues and turning it into the only issue. It is forcing you to be police, not business advisers. The emphasis on blame and punishment is freezing you in place and probably making you resentful and angry.

This may be no consolation, but if you're feeling this way and withdrawing into a shell, concerned about only jumping through every procedural hoop so nobody can sweep down and criticize you, you are reacting normally.

But we need to avoid being victims of our circumstances.

We need to stand up tall as proud human beings who are committed to the public good and our agencies and missions.

We need, in spite of pressures pushing us in a different direction, to look for ways to do good rather than simply keeping out of trouble.

In one scene in the Humphrey Bogart movie "Casablanca," Victor Laszlo, the anti-Nazi resistance leader, stands up in Rick's café, in the presence of a group of German officers, and begins singing the French national anthem. Once he has been courageous enough to do so, others stand up and join him. The people at Rick's café stood up to say they wouldn't let the Nazis intimidate them.

Everyone has the potential to be a Victor Laszlo. We need to show it now.

So now is the time to commit a random act of innovation. Now is the time to do something in your organization that shows you can use your abilities and skills to figure out a more intelligent way to buy. Get a new strategically sourced contract going. Look for an opportunity to do share-in-savings. Figure out how to make a performance-based contract. Whatever it is, look for a way to help our agencies and taxpayers.

They cannot beat us down unless we let them.

Your friend,
Steve Kelman

Kelman is a professor of public management at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. He can be reached at steve_kelman@harvard.edu.

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