By Steve Kelman
Steve Kelman is hopeful that the VA's unusual choice to host a competition for an IT system will break new ground. (Stock image)
When I posted on my Facebook page a column about contests (when they’re likely to work and when they’re a bad idea) as a procurement tool, I received a comment from my friend Roger Baker, the dynamic CIO of Veterans Affairs, about a contest the VA is running where they will pay $3 million to the winner who can develop an open-source appointment scheduling system for VA hospitals.
The contest was announced in early January, and entries are due by June 13. (For blog readers unfamiliar with the idea, a procurement contest is one where the government puts out a problem it needs to solve and announces a prize for the first or the best solution to the problem. Anyone may enter – no RFP, no long proposals, etc. Experience shows that winners are typically players the government has never dealt with before.)
The VA had earlier spent over $125 million to try to develop a customized scheduling system, and it didn’t work. This was one of the systems cancelled in a bold move by Baker when he came on board as VA CIO in 2009. I’m sure I’m missing something, but scheduling sounds to me like a fairly widespread commercial business process, and it seems weird that the VA had originally thought to grow their own. If the VA is actually now able to get an application that works for $3 million, after all they’ve spent, it would be an example of the 95 percent cost savings that come up often enough to make the contest phenomenon worthy of further attention.
At any rate, we should be really paying attention to whether the contest idea works here. It has seldom (in fact, I’m trying to be cautious – I actually can’t think of a single example) been used in government to date to try to source an IT application. In the column I wrote (based on a paper by a University of Michigan business school academic), it was argued that contests are less likely to work if the product or service cannot be fully specified and if there will need to be a lot of communication between the buyer and potential contest entrants. Since IT applications typically can’t be fully specified and do require communication, VA’s approach is risky – though hardly more risky than the original decision that led to blowing $125 million on failure going the traditional route.
So this is a project that the IT community should be watching really carefully. One way or another, there are likely to be lessons learned here, which hopefully the VA will share. If this works, it’s going to open a new chapter for IT procurement in the federal government. Hats off to Roger Baker and Peter Levin, the VA’s CTO, for giving it a try!
Posted on Jan 24, 2013 at 2:19 PM0 comments
Crowds filled the National Mall during Barack Obama's inauguration ceremony on January 21. (FCW photo by Michael Hardy)
While in town for this week’s presidential inauguration, I took the opportunity to ask friends I met (all Democrats) a question about the next four years. The question was this: “What’s the optimistic scenario for the next four years that you think has at least a 25 percent chance of happening? And what’s the pessimistic scenario that has at least a 25 percent chance of happening?”
Though not all responses were the same, there were interesting patterns. Basically, the optimistic scenarios involved the economy and the pessimistic ones involved the international scene. One person, for example, felt there was a 25 percent chance that four years from now the Democrats would be able to point to a “Morning in America” moment such as that used by Ronald Reagan in the 1984 presidential campaign – that most of the nation would feel confident that the economy had really come back strongly from the economic crisis.
The worries were international. They worried that Afghanistan and/or Pakistan might collapse in a way that creates real problems for the United States; that terrorism might resurge; that Europe’s economy could collapse; or that there might be trouble in the Middle East such as escalation of hostilities between Israel and Palestine or a revolution in Saudi Arabia).
Interestingly, nobody I asked mentioned improvements in the ability to compromise politically; nor did anyone predict progress or calamity regarding the country’s fiscal problems. I asked about whether an optimistic economic scenario would have any impact on political dysfunction, and the best response I got was one suggestion that economic growth would reduce the urgency of the budget deficit problem.
By the way, a Chinese friend sent me a screen shot of a page on Youku – China’s home-grown equivalent to YouTube – of scenes from the Obama inauguration. One picture showed the President and Michelle Obama dancing, another the inaugural address. Still others showed Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keyes, and Kelly Clarkson singing. To be sure, these pics were hardly burning up the Chinese Internet. Twelve hours after being posted, they had only been watched 8,000 times. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting sign of the attractiveness of American society and culture in China, and elsewhere outside the United States. (I blogged a few months ago about Chinese kids wearing t-shirts with US flags or military insignia.)
Posted on Jan 22, 2013 at 2:19 PM3 comments
Richard Hackman was known for research on managing teams.
Richard Hackman, a professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard, died last week of lung cancer at the age of only 72. (He was a pipe smoker.) He was most known for his research on managing teams, a field that in many ways he pioneered. He was a major figure for many years in the academic study of organizational behavior, and in fact recently had received the lifetime achievement award of the organizational behavior division of the Academy of Management, the main organization of scholars who study organizations.
I bring up Hackman for readers of this blog because he was one of the few prominent organizational behavior scholars still around who was interested in government management. His last book, Collaborative Intelligence, was about how to make intelligence-analysis teams work better. Other work of his was empirically situated in government organizations, and pretty much all his work on teams was relevant to government. Although never on the Kennedy School faculty, he was always very warm and friendly to what we were trying to do as a school devoted to public service, and in the last years before he got sick he taught about teams to federal officials attending executive education classes with us.
I wrote two columns over the years about Hackman’s work. One, all the way back in 2002, was about his classic book Leading Teams, which in the column I called “the best book on teams I've ever read, with material that many FCW readers would find helpful.” And in 2011 I wrote a column about Collaborative Intelligence.
Hackman was associated with a number of provocative ideas, such as the idea that organizations tend to “over-team.” Working in teams takes time and energy, and some individuals may take a free ride (making the whole less than the sum of the parts). You shouldn’t form a team in the first place without good reason – usually the need to get diverse knowledge and/or skills from different people in order to solve a problem or do a task. Another view of Hackman’s was that people often pay excessive attention to team processes as opposed to how the team is structured even before it starts its work – has it been given a good task, does it have the right members, and so forth.
There was a time early in the history of organizational studies when many of the leading organization scholars (in political science or sociology departments) studied government organizations. One leading academic journal, the Administrative Science Quarterly, covered the government in about a third of its articles in its early years in the 1950s.
With the migration of organizational studies to business schools and the declining prestige of government, this has almost completely disappeared. Many organizational behavior scholars study questions that might interest any organization (government, nonprofit, or business), but few study the special management challenges of government – such as non-financial performance measurement or motivating without monetary incentives – and increasingly the trend is to study topics that are much more like individual psychology than anything having to do with organizations at all. To the extent organization scholars study a sector of society, it is business firms.
These trends are sad, though they do reflect trends in the larger society. And they make the premature loss of Richard Hackman all the sadder. Read obituary tributes to him here.
Posted on Jan 15, 2013 at 2:19 PM0 comments