Kelman: Dancing in the hallways

Denett, the Bush administration’s nominee for OFPP, is the right person at the right time

In contracting shops throughout town, people are, figuratively at least — maybe literally, too — dancing in the hallways after Paul Denett’s nomination as the new administrator for the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

Steve Kelman After the traumatic stints of Angela Styles and David Safavian in that position, Denett gives us hope that contracting may head back on a path to better serve agency missions and taxpayers. Denett is a longtime career procurement professional who retired several years ago from government after a succession of contracting jobs, most recently as the senior procurement executive at the Interior Department.

I got to know him while I was serving in government, and I remember him for a number of things. First, he always strongly identified with frontline contracting professionals in the field — with their hopes and hassles. Interior is a field-oriented organization. He always served as my conscience, reminding me to make sure I was helping those he called the little people in government who work far away from the corridors of power in Washington, D.C. Second, he is a strong advocate of modernizing, streamlining and orienting the procurement system to serve agency missions.

Third, it was impossible to find anyone who did not like Denett as a human being. He lacks the ego that afflicts many in Washington. He is a gentleman and a gentle man. His presence and bearing reflect the highest standards of honesty and personal integrity for which procurement must stand.

Before leaving government, Denett created a young procurement professional internship, which was shared among a number of civilian agencies. It was designed to attract talented young people to contracting, an issue he realized was important before it became fashionable. He continued to nurture a new generation of procurement professionals after leaving government by taking responsibility for an awards program that the prestigious Procurement Roundtable organized.

Denett’s arrival could not have come at a more propitious time. The contracting community has been shaken by real and alleged scandals. The forward momentum of a decade stopped long before contracting modernization — which began in the 1990s — was complete.

People today are demoralized and scared. We must have a procurement system of honesty and integrity. But striving exclusively for those goals means lowering our sights and becoming, as I’ve written before, like a lawyer who never hides evidence or lies but who has never won a case.

With the worst of the scandal-mongering behind us, now is a crucial moment to have somebody in the government’s top procurement position who stands for the honesty and integrity that is the bedrock of the system — and someone who wants to accomplish something positive, not merely avoid doing bad things.

Denett needs to undertake a small number of initiatives directed toward improving the system to deliver the best value — whether it be strategic sourcing, improved contract management, performance-based contracting, workforce improvement or something else he chooses — and help the contracting community fight back against the current atmosphere. People need to be engaged in those areas of improvement and accomplishment to feel proud again.

If I may be excused for a guy-thing sports analogy, Denett’s appointment is a home run.

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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