Kelman: Inconvenient truths

Getting a demoralized contracting community back on track is possible with good leadership

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Find a link to Kelman’s column, “Washington’s Fear Industry,” and a link to his blog, “The Lectern,” on FCW.com’s Download at www.fcw.com/download.

A Federal Computer Week reporter interviewing me about a procurement issue asked whether I knew how we could get the procurement system out of its funk. Here are a few ideas — and a few caveats.

Hiring more people would be a big help. Staff shortages produce mistakes. Mistakes produce more negative attention. More negative attention means more box-ticking, checking with superiors and documenting — and less actual work getting done. All of that makes the system even more cumbersome and ineffective. However, simply hiring people will provide only a limited benefit if the environment produced by the fear of inspectors general, reporters, watchdogs and many elected officials remains unchanged.

Think about the consequences of hiring young people into a workplace where mistakes are pilloried and successes ignored. Who would want to work in a system where the supreme good is demonstrating that you have complied with every regulation and checked every box? Most young people — never mind the best and brightest — will not stay long in that environment. Government might be able to hire people, but keeping them will be difficult. The workforce would become a merry-go-round: lots of motion going nowhere.

More rules are not the answer. The goal is to get the best value for agencies, and that requires sound business judgment, innovation and good contract management. None of that can be prescribed by regulations.

“Is there any prospect for changing the atmosphere the fear industry has created?” the reporter asked me.

That’s a good question, and a tough one. The problem is that the approach the fear industry takes to procurement is the most intuitively obvious one — especially for those who know little about procurement in particular and the management of knowledge-based organizations and educated workforces in general.

Without leaders at the top who champion the modern management ideas of results, innovation and employee empowerment, getting out of our funk will be difficult.

Many — especially career public managers and those running businesses in the private sector — are aware that techniques developed in the 1820s to discipline factory workers will not elicit peak performance from highly educated employees, especially young ones, who do knowledge work.

The problem is that few with these insights seem to migrate into leadership positions in politics and government.

At the risk of sounding nostalgic or partisan, I will say that we have had one senior government leader in the past decades who was not afraid to distance himself from the fear industry and speak the language of results, innovation and empowerment. That was Al Gore. And the climate for improving procurement and government in general reflected that encouragement.

So as not to be too partisan, I will add that another person in a senior elected position who advocated the same approach is Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), especially when he was chairman of the Government Reform Committee.

Without that kind of leadership, the fear industry will continue to hold the procurement system, and good government, in its thrall.

Kelman is 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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