Kelman: How to sustain reforms

A young political scientist at the University of Virginia, Eric Patashnik, has published a fascinating book called “Reforms at Risk: What Happens after Major Policy Changes Are Enacted” (Princeton University Press). Patashnik’s subject matter is the kind of reforms that the are most difficult to achieve — those done on behalf of the general public, without powerful interest groups’ support and often running against the political incentives of elected officials or powerful interests on the other side.

Intriguingly, one of the six case studies that constitute the book’s empirical base deals with the procurement reforms of the 1990s that sought to focus the acquisition system’s energies more on the best-value goals it should achieve and less on merely avoiding bad things such as fraud or favoritism.
Patashnik concentrates on an important question: Under what conditions can reforms be sustained after they are enacted?

As Patashnik notes, enactment by no means ensures sustainment. Most, but not all, of the reforms this book discusses became vitiated or even more or less obliterated. This was done not necessarily through repeal but in other ways, such as what Patashnik calls smothering — the original reforms remain on the books but are weakened by new policies that destroy the reforms’ spirit.

The book’s general conclusion is that reforms have the best chance to be sustained if they change institutions or policy-making. Airline deregulation eliminated an agency — the Civil Aeronautics Board — that was an advocate for the previous system. Deregulation also drove the carriers most benefiting from regulation into bankruptcy, while bringing in new airlines that appeared because of deregulation and stimulating investments in new route systems compatible with the new environment.

Patashnik is positive about the impact of procurement reform, writing: “By nearly all accounts, the procurement flexibilities introduced in the 1990s improved the acquisition process.” Yet he has a mixed verdict on their likely sustainability. On the plus side, they gained widespread support in the career workforce, eliminated at least one pre-reform institution — the pro-protest information technology bid protest forum — and created some new supportive interest groups, particularly nontraditional IT vendors.
 
On the other hand, Patashnik argues they didn’t fundamentally change procurement policy-making as the old interest groups remained. Patashnik expresses regret that the bid-protest reforms, unlike airline deregulation, did not drive protest lawyers into bankruptcy. Above all, congressional policy-making didn’t change — elected officials retained an incentive to concentrate on scandal.

“The attempt to create a new culture of risk taking, innovation, and entrepreneurship among contract officers never really [gained] traction,” he wrote. Thus, “some victories have been won, but transformational change in American public administration has not been easy to sustain.”
I find it hard to disagree with even a sentence of Patashnik’s excellent analysis.
 
Kelman (steve_kelman@harvard.edu) helped lead procurement reform efforts in the mid-1990s while serving as administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

About the Author

Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. Connect with him on Twitter: @kelmansteve

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