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 ( 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

The 2015 Federal 100

Meet 100 women and men who are doing great things in federal IT.


  • Shutterstock image (by venimo): e-learning concept image, digital content and online webinar icons.

    Can MOOCs make the grade for federal training?

    Massive open online courses can offer specialized IT instruction on a flexible schedule and on the cheap. That may not always mesh with government's preference for structure and certification, however.

  • Shutterstock image (by edel): graduation cap and diploma.

    Cybersecurity: 6 schools with the right stuff

    The federal government craves more cybersecurity professionals. These six schools are helping meet that demand.

  • Rick Holgate

    Holgate to depart ATF

    Former ACT president will take a job with Gartner, follow his spouse to Vienna, Austria.

  • Are VA techies slacking off on Yammer?

    A new IG report cites security and productivity concerns associated with employees' use of the popular online collaboration tool.

  • Shutterstock image: digital fingerprint, cyber crime.

    Exclusive: The OPM breach details you haven't seen

    An official timeline of the Office of Personnel Management breach obtained by FCW pinpoints the hackers’ calibrated extraction of data, and the government's step-by-step response.

  • Stephen Warren

    Deputy CIO Warren exits VA

    The onetime acting CIO at Veterans Affairs will be taking over CIO duties at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

  • Shutterstock image: monitoring factors of healthcare.

    DOD awards massive health records contract

    Leidos, Accenture and Cerner pull off an unexpected win of the multi-billion-dollar Defense Healthcare Management System Modernization contract, beating out the presumptive health-records leader.

  • Sweating the OPM data breach -- Illustration by Dragutin Cvijanovic

    Sweating the stolen data

    Millions of background-check records were compromised, OPM now says. Here's the jaw-dropping range of personal data that was exposed.

  • FCW magazine

    Let's talk about Alliant 2

    The General Services Administration is going to great lengths to gather feedback on its IT services GWAC. Will it make for a better acquisition vehicle?

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above