The Lectern

Steve Kelman

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By Steve Kelman

Contract management vs. contract lawyering


I was recently reading a Kennedy School case from last year about a drawn-out effort by a manager at Transport for London, which runs that city's public transportation system, to improve the performance of a consortium managing the system's smartcard payment technology system. (Surely not fully coincidentally, the manager was a Kennedy School graduate from the United Kingdom.) The contract was a 15-year, so-called "private finance initiative" effort that involved the contractors building and running a new smartcard system.

Such long contracts have advantages, especially when a contractor needs to make large upfront investments that will be paid back over a long period of time. But they also invariably create problems as the world changes or as the parties learn more about how their business relationship is working.

When both parties want to change the specs in the original contract, the way is paved for that mainstay of government contracting, the change order. However, in the smartcard contract, some of the problems the government perceived were of a different nature.


Posted on Oct 17, 2014 at 12:49 PM1 comments

Tel Aviv dispatch

Tel Aviv streets on on Yom Kippur (Photo: Steve Kelman)

Tel Aviv streets were nearly deserted on Yom Kippur (Photo: Steve Kelman)

The weather this time of year in Tel Aviv, Israel, is heavenly – high 70's (for non-U.S. readers, about 25 C.), cloudless blue skies and low humidity. (Low humidity for us, anyway -- some Israeli friends actually thought it was "quite" humid. Everything is relative in the middle of a desert.)

Israelis often call Tel Aviv "the bubble," a more fun-loving, beachgoing, secular, politically liberal city, with a large and "out" gay community -- Israel's California. This in contrast to the more religious, and religiously divided, Jerusalem, with many ultra-Orthodox Jews along with militant Muslims, contending over the same holy places.

A whirlwind of impressions from a short trip:

1) Spending an entire day walking around the city, I was amazed to see hardly a single policeman anywhere. Given the risk of terrorism, how was this possible?


Posted on Oct 15, 2014 at 8:42 AM0 comments

Procurement jujitsu at HHS

FAR image GSA

Bryan Sivak is the chief technology officer at the Department of Health and Human Services, and the kind of manager of whom government needs more -- interested in experimenting with new ways to deliver better value from government. He has established an HHS IDEA Lab, which is home to efforts like HHS Ignite, which actually provides $5000 of seed money (plus some coaching) to internal HHS entrepreneurs to develop new startup-type ideas for the agency. After three months, HHS decides whether the idea is worth continued work. It's a tiny version of an internal HHS venture capital operation.

I came across Sivak because another part of the IDEA Lab is called the HHS Buyers Club, which wants to try out innovative procurement techniques. A while back, FCW ran an article about Sivak called Teaching Feds not to fear the FAR. "Fear the FAR" was an interesting phrase -- the point was that the FAR provides more flexibility than many folks assume, and that people need to learn to take advantage of the flexibilities.


Posted on Oct 10, 2014 at 12:16 PM3 comments

Collaborating across organizations -- practice makes perfect

Shutterstock image: executive connecting individuals to one another.

About 80 years ago, a young economist at the University of Chicago named Ronald Coase asked a question that might initially seem sort of dumb, but was actually very profound: Why do organizations exist in the first place?

Economists tend to be very impressed with how well markets work to organize production in a society, providing incentives for good quality and low costs. So why should, say, GM exist as an organization? Why doesn't an entrepreneur constantly buy input supplies and talent (workers, marketers, designers) on a spot market, continually taking advantage of competition rather than having suppliers of materials and labor inside the firm who in effect have a monopoly on supplying the organization?

Coase's answer had many dimensions (he won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1991 for this and one other paper, and died -- at the age of 103 -- only last year!), but one is particularly relevant for this blog post: If you put people inside an organization, they work with each other on an ongoing basis.


Posted on Oct 02, 2014 at 7:28 AM3 comments

What the CIO Council could learn from the public health community's 'President's Challenge'

steve kelman

Teaching recently at a Harvard Kennedy School executive education program for heads of state public health agencies, I had a chance to lunch with Dr. Terry Cline, director of the Oklahoma Department of Health, who is just finishing up his term as president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, an interagency association of public health departments. Through the program -- I was teaching about performance measurement in government -- I learned about an effort, led for the last five years by each year’s leader of ASTHO, called The President's Challenge.

The President’s Challenge has developed into an annual specific performance goal initiated by the organization’s president-elect the year before taking office -- to give the association time to discuss and develop strategies for meeting the goal before the person begins the year as president. The president seeks commitments from as many as possible of ASTHO's members to work on the goal. The idea is that the individual state health departments will each work individually in their state on the goal, while also sharing information on lessons learned about what strategies seem to be working.


Posted on Sep 29, 2014 at 9:36 AM3 comments

Oracle, the CIA and government's role in picking winners

data door

After Larry Ellison's announcement at the end of last week that he was retiring from Oracle, I saw (on Twitter, of course!) a blog post, by someone named Matt Novak, entitled "Larry Ellison's Oracle Started as a CIA Project." Novak noted that official Oracle accounts of the history of the company don't mention that the company's first customer was the CIA, and that in fact the name the agency wanted for the relational database was... Oracle. "Not mentioning just how reliant Oracle has been on government contracts since its inception," Novak writes, "is downright strange and seems to feed this narrative that Ellison simply created a product that companies wanted and private enterprise did the rest."

If you continue to read Novak's post, it becomes apparent that his aim is less to praise the CIA for helping a premier American company get off the ground than it is to tar high-tech companies for supporting government surveillance and hurting people's privacy. But my reaction to the post was somewhat different -- it made me think again about a question I think has gotten insufficient attention from scholars and others, namely the role of government in promoting new industries and long-term economic growth.


Posted on Sep 24, 2014 at 2:48 PM4 comments

How social media is changing government management (again)

Social Media Tree

I have blogged over the past few months on how innovative uses of social media can change, and indeed are changing, public-sector management. In one of those posts, I noted that not least among the benefits is that so many more civil servants can become innovators, since finding new government uses for social media is more a matter of creativity than of money or complex bureaucratic approval processes.

In the belief that a good way to get the creative juices of frontline public officials flowing is to hear diverse examples of different ways people have themselves been creative, I try to be on the lookout for interesting examples of real people who have thought about ways to use social media for the public good. I came across such an example over the weekend from the floods that last week hit a very poor part of the world, Kashmir in the very north of India.


Posted on Sep 17, 2014 at 2:19 PM3 comments

Government tech lessons from the Far East

Shutterstock image: global innovation lightbulb.

About a year ago, I blogged about experiences traveling in Asian airports that used a simple device allowing customers to press one of four buttons, from smiley face to frowning face, to record reactions to how they had been treated at passport control or how clean the airport bathroom was. At the time, I had expressed a bit of surprise and disappointment that the U.S. was lagging behind Asian governments in introducing this simple, inexpensive customer service feature.

Fast-forward to just a few days ago, when I saw a very similar smiley/frowning face system while entering and leaving China. It was not quite as bright and eye-catching (and therefore not as likely to be noticed and used) as the ones I had seen in Singapore, but it was there. 


Posted on Sep 11, 2014 at 8:20 AM1 comments

A better path to performance management

Performance meter

When people think about how performance measurement might improve a government organization's performance, most immediately think about how metrics can be used as a carrot or a stick to get people to work harder or to care more about what they do. Many argue that organizations should either gain or lose budget depending on their performance. Others argue that "pay for performance" should reward individual good performers and punish, or fire, bad ones.

While these common reactions are not necessarily wrong, applying them is more complicated than the kneejerk reactions suggest. Might bad performance suggest that an organization is underfunded and needs more budget? If an organization is doing very well with its current budget, does it necessarily need more money? And individual-level pay for performance, aside from the political problems with union resistance, can reduce necessary cooperation among employees in a workplace, as well as (look at the Veterans Affairs situation) increase incentives for cheating.


Posted on Sep 05, 2014 at 4:35 PM4 comments

LinkedIn self-censoring "sensitive" posts about China

U.S.-China conversation.  Shutterstock image.

Rob Schmitz is a Shanghai-based U.S. journalist with a prior career as a Peace Corps volunteer in China; the Columbia Journalism School grad is now a freelancer for various U.S. media outlets. I had never heard of him before I saw somebody re-tweet on Twitter something he had written about problems he had had with posts he had put up on his LinkedIn account. He told about what had happened after he posted a story about the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square suppression (in order that potential employers could get samples of his writing).

However, he shortly thereafter received an email from LinkedIn saying that his post contained "content that is prohibited in China," and that "as a result the content will not be seen by LinkedIn members located in China." Furthermore, LinkedIn informed that Schmitz's post, because it originated in China, would not be sent to his followers outside the country either.


Posted on Sep 02, 2014 at 8:33 AM2 comments

The miracle of social trust

Shutterstock image: executive handshake.

The Economist, the wonderful newsweekly that is the fount of so much useful information and insight, ran an article recently about the growth of LinkedIn. That business-focused social networking site is apparently expanding into a sort of generalized employment platform that is starting to include nonprofessional jobs as well.

What really caught my eye in the article, however, was a discussion of a French LinkedIn knockoff called Viadeo, which recently had an IPO in France and is trying to make a presence in places where LinkedIn does not yet dominate, including China.

Unfortunately, Viadeo has been having trouble getting Chinese employers to use its site to find job candidates, according to the article.

The question for you as a blog reader is: Why?

I quizzed a number of people, and all gave the same answer: In China, connections (guanxi) are extremely important in getting jobs, and employers would never think of going to some anonymous list of candidates they don't personally know or have friends who know.


Posted on Aug 26, 2014 at 11:02 AM2 comments

Digital Service and agency IT: Advice for Mikey

Shutterstock image: government access keyboard.

Last week, FCW and others reported on a White House announcement of the establishment of a digital service team -- people with commercial IT experience, from outside the Beltway and running out of U.S. CIO Steven VanRoekel's office in the Office of Management and Budget -- to provide advice and consulting to agencies on executing IT projects. Then on Monday, I was surprised to see in the business section of the New York Times an interview with Mikey Dickerson, a 35 year-old ex-Googler (and IT person for the 2012 Obama campaign), who will be running the team with the title of deputy CIO. It is unusual for the Times to get into the weeds of federal IT, so the interview caught my eye.


Posted on Aug 19, 2014 at 8:13 AM2 comments

Social media rules!

Social Media Tree

When I opened my Wednesday morning New York Times over breakfast (yes, I still read this in hard copy!), I saw on the front page a headline, "After shooting, hashtag fuels a campaign." The story was about a hashtag called #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, which had spread virally on Twitter (168,000 mentions when the Times article was written) after the killing of a black teenager in Missouri. The article noted that 40 percent of blacks aged 18-29 use Twitter, compared with 28 percent of whites, and that "Black Twitter" had become a powerful grassroots communication tool.

A few minutes later I turned to check headlines on the inside sections of the paper, and saw on the first page of the Arts section an article called, "On Twitter, mourning is collective." This one was about reactions to the death of Robin Williams. In the minutes after his death was announced, there were 63,000 tweets a minute about Williams. "When beloved celebrities died in an earlier era, we rushed home and gathered around our television sets," the reporter wrote. "Now we stare at our smartphones. ...In the age of social media, everyone is an obituary writer."


Posted on Aug 14, 2014 at 12:43 PM8 comments

The REAL regulatory challenge of agile development

steve kelman

Just a few days after my recent blog post on agile software development, the Office of Management and Budget published a document called TechFAR, designed to encourage use of agile. (No, I had no advance inside knowledge.)

The document is a mixture of two things OMB has tried to do in recent years, both in procurement and in other management areas.

The first is to act as a "mythbuster" (a phrase first associated with Dan Gordon as Office of Federal Procurement Policy administrator, explaining to government officials that the Federal Acquisition Regulation allowed, indeed encouraged, communication with industry prior to the government issuing an RFP). The second is to present templates with advice about how to do new things -- e.g. contract and solicitation clauses – that people may never have tried before and are not sure how to implement.


Posted on Aug 12, 2014 at 12:03 PM14 comments

Agile in government is alive (and well?)

Agile Development Stock Image

A recent link on Twitter pointed me to a report on agile software development for government called Agile in the Federal Government: Improving Execution, written by a small consulting firm called CCpace. I had never heard of CCpace before, but the firm apparently has one line of business that provides training in agile development -- delivered by agile programmers rather than professional trainers, and now available in the federal marketplace. (I should note that I am a recent Twitter convert, and am finding on the service a large number of links to interesting articles and reports I otherwise wouldn't have seen!)

Agile seems to be alive -- and maybe even well, I don't know enough to judge -- in the federal government. A quick search of the key words "agile development" on showed no fewer than 61 references in the last 30 days. One FCW story, on HHS's RFP for a contract for further development of, stated that "agile is a key requirement," with the HHS statement of work specifying that the contractor "shall use an iterative methodology to system development that provides the best opportunity to incrementally build and test software functionality."


Posted on Aug 08, 2014 at 7:25 AM6 comments

Beware: Taxpayer rip-off hidden in Defense authorization bill

steve kelman

Foreigners frequently ask me whether U.S. politics are dominated by wealthy special interests. I answer that this is certainly a problem, but that in general, the more visible a political question, the more that public opinion (including the opinions of grassroots political activists) are important. The flip side is political decisions are most at risk of being dominated by narrow interests when the issue is obscure, technical and gets no public attention. There the special interests can hold sway unchallenged.

I was reminded of this general principle when I became aware of some little-noticed provisions in the version of the Defense Department’s annual authorization bill passed by the House of Representatives that would place significant prohibitions on the government’s ability to use reverse auctions in procurement.


Posted on Aug 01, 2014 at 9:02 AM6 comments

How to get good media stories about government

TSA airport screener

A contest to make airport security screening less taxing produced the elusive positive mainstream media story on agency operations.

Along with about 9 million other Americans -- quite a large number, although down about half since 1980 -- I watch the NBC Nightly News whenever I am home at the time it is shown. I was amazed the other night to see Brian Williams, just before a commercial break, alert the audience that there would be a story coming up next about the Transportation Security Administration's contest to get ideas for reducing security lines.

Sure enough, the NBC news was actually running a favorable story about one of my favorite procurement/public management reforms, contests. Brian Williams noted that TSA was "offering rewards totaling about $15,000" for the best ideas the public submits, and actually noted on the air that the NBC website included more information about the contest. (You can watch a shortened version of the segment, and see NBC's instructions to potential entrants, here. The contest deadline, by the way, is Aug. 15.)


Posted on Jul 30, 2014 at 8:03 AM3 comments

What 'Moneyball for Government' really means

Image from

I first got to know John Kamensky when he was a detailee from the Government Accountability Office, working as a senior staffer for Vice President Al Gore's "reinventing government" program in the 1990s. He is now at the IBM Center for the Business of Government -- still working on improving government management and performance, just from a different berth.

I recently noticed an article John has written for The Business of Government, IBM's quarterly compendium of opinion, interviews, and discussions of research they have sponsored on government management, called Is Moneyball Government the Next Big Thing?

In case any readers have been living under a rock the last several years, Moneyball was a 2004 best-seller by Michael Lewis, later made into a movie starring Brad Pitt, about how the manager of the Oakland A's baseball team used data to select players whose actual performance the marketplace undervalued. The book was a harbinger of a dramatic growth of "data analytics" in the business world -- crunching data to help companies catch market opportunities and improve performance.


Posted on Jul 25, 2014 at 2:29 PM6 comments

Harvard grads then and now: How America has changed

Shutterstock image: businesswoman looking at a career plan.

I recently received an email message with preliminary results, based on responses from only about a tenth of the class, for my Harvard College Class of 1970 reunion book.

The reunion book allows people to update their former classmates on what they've been up to. And reading people's occupations was a real eye-opener about cultural and economic changes since that time.

What was amazing was how few of my classmates had gone into the careers chosen by half of new Harvard grads these days -- investment banking (now known to students simply as "banking"), consulting and private equity/hedge funds. Of my classmates reporting, only two were in finance, broadly speaking -- one was in wealth management and one in venture capital for health care startups.

No one reported working in consulting, while three worked for government and another two worked for nonprofits. Additionally, one classmate reported that he was a former government political appointee while another admitted to being a politician.


Posted on Jul 23, 2014 at 6:11 AM2 comments

What needs to be fixed in the FAR?

steve kelman

Steve Kelman argues that agencies often overpay for web design that could be handled better, and more cheaply, by smaller firms.

A recent FCW story by Mark Rockwell, "Teaching feds not to fear the FAR," has gotten a fair amount of attention in the Twittersphere and is definitely worth reading. It discusses a number of efforts underway -- including a “Buyer’s Club” led by Health and Human Services Chief Technology Officer Bryan Sivak and a TechFAR document being prepared at the Office of Federal Procurement Policy under the leadership of the indefatigable Mathew Blum -- to lower the fear factor in the government IT community around the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) and to emphasize flexibilities available in the regs.


Posted on Jul 17, 2014 at 12:44 PM9 comments

Government contests come of age

Shutterstock image: illuminated light bulb signifying an innovative idea.

When I first started writing about using contests as an innovative way to procure some products or services, some 10 years ago, they were largely unknown in government. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency was the early adopter -- plowing the ground, literally and figuratively, by organizing a contest where people could enter all-terrain vehicles that would have to navigate a desert obstacle course. The first to do so won the contest, and a prize.

As an ultimate form of pay-for-success contracting, and (as it developed) as a way to encourage non-traditional players into working to meet government needs, contests -- I am about to give in to government-ese, and call these “challenges” -- have immense virtues for meeting certain kinds of public purposes.


Posted on Jul 11, 2014 at 12:02 PM2 comments

Thoughts coming off the 4th of July

steve kelman

As some of my Facebook friends are aware, I try to be conscientious about remembering the religious holidays and national days of places and faiths where I have a significant number of Facebook connections. So on the morning of the Fourth of July, not surprisingly, I posted a status update sending U.S. Facebook friends best wishes for the holiday. But I decided to add an additional twist, partly to see what kind of reaction, if any, it would get.

I posted that I was "wishing U.S. Facebook friends best wishes for the Fourth of July. Hope that non-U.S. Facebook friends will join Americans in celebrating: for all our (many) faults, the U.S. represents values of respect for people, freedom, democracy and opportunity that are important for people everywhere."

The post got a pretty large reaction, 89 likes. But what was more interesting, I think, was who liked the post:


Posted on Jul 07, 2014 at 6:48 AM3 comments

Hate 'the' VA, love 'my' VA

steve kelman

Veteran Jack Chisholm said he has "nothing but praise" for VA hospitals. "My appointments over there were on time. I always saw the doctor, and I never had to wait." Procedures "were done promptly. [People] were friendly."

"I've seen the highs and lows, and right now it's at its peak," said Bill McCarthy, a VA patient since 1969.

Do those quotes predate the recent VA scandal? Where do they come from?

The answer is that they appeared this week in a front-page article in the Concord Journal, the weekly newspaper of my hometown in Massachusetts. The story explains how veterans swarming into Sunbelt cities such as Phoenix have created problems that don't exist in Massachusetts.

The quotes and the article illustrate a general principle of social and political life.


Posted on Jul 01, 2014 at 1:42 PM0 comments

This could be the start of something big

Shutterstock image.

When it comes to future performance, how important are the early managerial choices made by leaders of a new organization -- or by leaders of a new cross-organizational collaborative enterprise or new unit within an organization?

I would guess that many of us suspect these early choices are often important. And there is a whole strand of social science research, called "path dependence theory," that argues that people, organizations, and even countries can early on start on a path, maybe even by chance, that gets reinforced over time: The classic example from the literature is the QWERTY keyboard system, which was originally developed to slow people down using a typewriter because the keys would jam if pounded too quickly, but remained in the age of electric typewriters and then computers because people had invested in learning the old system.


Posted on Jun 26, 2014 at 7:51 AM3 comments

Pinocchio, George Washington and the challenge of promoting honesty

An advance online copy of the latest issue of the highly regarded journal Psychological Science recently appeared, and it contains an article that caught my eye: "Can Classic Moral Stories Promote Honesty in Children?" by a team of Canadian psychology professors headed by Kang Lee of the University of Toronto.

The article reports on lab experiments involving three- to seven-year-old children. In the experiment, the children sat at a table with their back to the experimenter, who explained to the kids that she was putting an object (like a rubber duck) on the table and would let the child hear a sound associated with the object (e.g. quacking). The child had to guess what the object was, based on the sound. At one point during the experiment, the researcher stated she had to leave the room briefly because she had forgotten the story book she had promised to read the child after the experiment. She told the children not to turn around to look at the object while she was gone. Then, while she was away, a hidden camera recorded whether the child turned around to look -- which most did.


Posted on Jun 20, 2014 at 10:35 AM4 comments

A U.S.-China high-tech trade war?

U.S.-China conversation.  Shutterstock image.

In the wake of the U.S. government indictments of Chinese army officers said to be part of a cyber-hacking, there are warning signs that the Chinese government may be creating problems for U.S. high-tech firms selling in China, which if it continues risks a nasty trade war.

There is a perfect storm of factors that makes the Chinese government suspicious of U.S. IT. The first is that it can give Chinese people access to foreign information and communication channels. Both Google and Gmail, which operate out of Hong Kong after the company left mainland China to protest website blocking, have been periodically unstable and/or unavailable inside China. In the weeks before the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in early June, the two sites became just about completely unavailable. As of this writing, two weeks after the anniversary, both are still unavailable, except for Gmail accounts set up as a smartphone app.


Posted on Jun 17, 2014 at 6:55 AM1 comments

A story that makes federal IT look good

Shutterstock image.

(Image: Shutterstock)

A recent issue of BloombergBusinessWeek had a cover story on problems at IBM. The story as a whole was an interesting one, but what caught my eye, and the reason I discuss it here, was the story's leadoff, which featured the contest between IBM and Amazon for the big CIA cloud computing contract. (A story, incidentally, that was first broken by FCW.)

Basically, the first three paragraphs of the BusinessWeek story were filled with praise and recognition for federal IT. The author made two relevant points. The first was that winning the CIA contract would give the winner major bragging rights: "Whoever won…could boast that its technology met the highest standards, with the tightest security, at the most competitive prices, at a time when customers of all kinds were beginning to spend more on data and analytics."


Posted on Jun 13, 2014 at 9:29 AM0 comments

Can social media make every civil servant an innovator?

Social Media Tree

(Image: Shutterstock)

Innovation, particularly in government, can be very hard. Lots of signoffs, lots of naysayers. For many, it's probably not worth the hassle.

Yet all sorts of examples are surfacing about ways civil servants, non-profits, startups and researchers have thought to use social media -- or data mining of government information -- to get information that can either help citizens directly or help agencies serve citizens. I want to call attention to examples that I've seen just in the past few weeks -- partly to recognize the creative people who have come up with these ideas, but partly to make a point about the relationship between these ideas and the general issue of innovation in government. I think that these social media and data-driven experiments are often a much simpler way for civil servants to innovate than many of the changes we typically think of under the heading "innovation in government." They open the possibility to make innovation in government an activity for the civil service masses.


Posted on Jun 11, 2014 at 8:39 AM0 comments

2 1/2 cheers for GSA, Donald Trump and the Old Post Office

Donald Trump plans to convert the historic Old Post Office building on Pennsylvania Avenue into a luxury hotel.

A long story in The New York Times business section just recently got around to informing non-Washingtonians such as me that the Old Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue is passing into the control of Donald Trump. The real estate mogul is planning to build a luxury hotel on the property, which he says will be ready in time for the Inaugural Parade in 2017.

My immediate reaction as an outsider who adores the Old Post Office was joy about what was going to happen to it. Its recent mixed use, with restaurants and federal offices, hasn't worked -- largely because government building security checks make it unattractive for the general public to go inside.

But as I thought about the story, I also started contemplating the things it says about American government and society that have nothing specifically to do with the Old Post Office. And most of them reflect well on our country.


Posted on Jun 06, 2014 at 1:01 PM3 comments

Media life and real life

Shutterstock image.

Last week on CNN, I saw a story about a special late-night House hearing that had been held the evening before to grill Veterans Affairs Department managers about the Inspector General report on wait list problems at the VA Phoenix (and perhaps other) hospitals. Members were unable to contain anger and emotion. The gruesome drumbeat that Secretary Shinseki's "head" would have to "roll" -- which culminated in his May 30 resignation -- grew louder.

I worked at home that morning, because I had on my calendar to attend the citizenship ceremony in Boston's historic Faneuil Hall for the Peruvian-born wife (of four years) of a former student of mine at the Kennedy School with whom I've remained friends.

To get to Faneuil Hall, I needed to take my commuter rail train, run by the regional public transportation system, all the way into the last stop, North Station, rather than getting off in Cambridge as I usually do. That was fortuitous, because I was going to need to stop at the lost and found at North Station to check if by any chance the briefcase I had left on a bench at the Cambridge station the night before was there. I had been carrying both my gym bag (which I often do) and a big bag of bagels I had just bought (which I seldom do) as well as my briefcase, and almost at my stop, I noticed there was no briefcase next to me at my seat. (If faithful readers recall earlier blogs about lost items, the answer is, "Yes, I am a very absent-minded professor.")


Posted on Jun 02, 2014 at 9:37 AM5 comments

What's so scary about performance ratings?

man graphs performance

A May 26 front-page article in The New York Times, with the scary title "Colleges Rattled as Obama Seeks Rating System," began by stating that college presidents are "appalled" by an Obama administration plan that "would compare schools on factors like how many of their students graduate, how much debt their students accumulate and how much money their students earn after graduating."

I am a professor, working at a university. I am also an advocate of using performance measurement to improve organizational performance. Should I feel "rattled" by the administration's effort?

The basic worries the college presidents expressed in the article were that the measurements could have perverse effects. (Sound familiar?)


Posted on May 27, 2014 at 8:16 AM4 comments

Benevolent government data mining, or Big Brother?

data door

The New York Times recently ran a fascinating story called, "U.S. mines personal health data to find the vulnerable in emergencies." It raises provocative issues that will become more and more relevant over time, as technology allows for ever-improving data mining and data analytics.

Here are the facts of the story:

There are a growing number of local programs that use government data sources, such as Medicare insurance claims, to locate people who are especially vulnerable to problems during emergencies such as hurricanes, and then to contact them to make them aware of problems they could face. Examples include people on kidney dialysis who might be advised to seek early treatment because a natural disaster would close dialysis centers, or people using electronic breathing devices who lack battery backups and could run into a huge problem if power goes out.


Posted on May 23, 2014 at 9:03 AM4 comments

VA waiting lists and performance measurement

Accusations that a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Phoenix, and perhaps others, created artificially positive wait-time statistics by hiding the names of veterans who were waiting a long time for appointments on a secret list have been all over the print and television media. A Google search with the keywords "Veterans Affairs Phoenix" yielded over 19 million hits.

As a balanced Associated Press article in the Washington Post makes clear, at this point the accusations have not been proven and VA hospital officials in Phoenix have denied them. But let's assume for a moment that they are true, which is not impossible or even implausible. If so, it would not be the first time that people fudged or cheated when reporting performance information to overseers. Think of the various scandals in which teachers changed student test results or, to take a very dramatic corporate example, the accounting manipulation at Enron.


Posted on May 19, 2014 at 10:37 AM8 comments

Mixing business with a procurement law degree

Complexity (Shutterstock image)

Many people -- and I count myself as one of them -- have long argued that government contracting professionals should in the first instance provide advice to program customers about the business elements of the contracting relationship. That would require skills such as knowledge of the marketplace for the product or service being bought (to help structure the contracting strategy and request for proposals), negotiating ability, understanding of contractual incentives, team management and performance monitoring. Program managers cannot be expected to have business expertise, and if contracting people don't provide it, it is likely to be absent altogether, creating problems for the government in getting a good deal from contracting.

Those of us who favor that underlying approach cannot fail to be happy that George Washington University has established a master of science degree in government contracting that requires students to take courses from both the GWU School of Business and the university's government procurement law program. I've been taking a closer look at the program, which began to admit students in August 2012, in the context of my nascent effort to develop a course in procurement management at the Kennedy School, a topic I have blogged about recently.


Posted on May 14, 2014 at 1:18 PM3 comments

Developing a course on procurement management -- seeking advice!

Complexity (Shutterstock image)

Given that it accounts for more than 40 percent of the U.S. federal government budget (and similar fractions in many state and local governments), procurement receives rather little attention, in terms of either teaching or research, even in public administration or public policy programs at U.S. universities. There are procurement-law related courses at a number of law schools, and Florida Atlantic University offers an online "executive certificate" in public procurement. But relatively few public administration programs, and to my knowledge no public policy program, offer even one course in government procurement.

The most interesting academic work that relates to procurement is research by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Oliver Williamson that is very relevant to the make-buy decision, and by extension somewhat relevant to procurement management. (For a good introduction, see his book Markets and Hierarchies.)


Posted on May 09, 2014 at 10:27 AM17 comments

FAR Part 1: 'If it's not prohibited, it's allowed'

steve kelman

The May issue of Contract Management magazine, the publication of the National Contract Management Association, featured an article called “Secrets of Superstar Contracting Professionals.” The article (which unfortunately is not available online to non-NCMA members) is by Christoph Minarchik, a lawyer in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and offers a quick guide to overall skills and competencies that freshly minted contracting professionals need to become outstanding in their profession.

I was happy (and, I will confess, flattered) to see, in a section of the article called “Innovation and Risk-Taking,” a short quote from Part 1.102(d) of the Federal Acquisition Regulation, reading in its entirety as follows:

“In exercising initiative, Government members of the Acquisition Team may assume if a specific strategy, practice, policy or procedure is in the best interests of the Government and is not addressed in the FAR, nor prohibited by law (statute or case law), Executive order or other regulation, that the strategy, practice, policy or procedure is a permissible exercise of authority.”


Posted on May 06, 2014 at 12:50 PM7 comments

Civil service needs stories of everyday heroes

elements of customer satisfaction

Many years ago, I read something about how a private-sector firm worked to create a service-oriented culture by sharing stories of employees who went above and beyond their job descriptions to help a customer. I don't recall the exact details, but I think the example given was a customer who needed something in a hurry, maybe a ticket or something (this was before everything was computerized) and the employee left work personally to bring it to him.

I thought of this, dredged out of half-forgotten memory, when I had an experience in Singapore last week (I'm now back in the United States) involving my passport. I had it in my back pocket one day to use at the Ministry of Manpower to get my temporary work permit for a few weeks of teaching at the Lee Kuan Yew Public Policy School. Apparently it fell out of my pocket while I was having dinner with some Chinese students studying in Singapore, and one of them found it and brought it in to the local police station. The next morning, before I even knew the passport was gone, I had received an email from a professor saying the passport was found and available at the police station.


Posted on Apr 29, 2014 at 8:35 AM8 comments

Another amazing crowdsourcing app shakes up the world

steve kelman

The Economist has run an article called "Pennies from Heaven" about an amazing app called GiveDirectly, which allows people to make donations that go directly to individuals in the developing world. The app involves an amazing mix of new technologies, and it is turning out to work better than many expected (or feared).

GiveDirectly uses technology to locate poor people in Kenya and Uganda in Africa (the countries where the organization currently operates) who are likely to be good targets for assistance. 

It does data crunching using statistical databases to locate especially poor areas. It then uses Google Maps to locate, for example, which houses in these villages have thatched rather than tin roofs, suggesting that the people in the houses are especially poor. Work scanning the maps is done by freelance employees hired on the cheap through the AmazonTurk odd-task service. 


Posted on Apr 24, 2014 at 8:08 AM4 comments

Managing (and working) in a global context

Global Dexterity

Many who work in the federal government, or who are contractors working with it, probably think their jobs are insulated from the globalization that has been hitting big U.S. companies like a tsunami. A moment's reflection, of course, will remind us there are many exceptions to that ability to be insular -- military stationed abroad, the State Department and USAID, contractors selling to foreign governments using American personnel and foreign military sales, not to speak of FDA inspectors stationed in China or Justice Department attorneys gathering evidence abroad. And this trend is certain to expand with each passing year; I have been amazed to see what percentage of my twenty-something American students have had experience working in international settings.

Yet for people in and around government -- for whom globalization is not the kind of existential fact that it is in much of the private sector -- dealing with different cultural traditions about how to behave in organizations is something that is not considered enough. Consider:


Posted on Apr 18, 2014 at 5:35 AM2 comments

How can we improve the use of past performance in contracting?

man graphs performance

Jaime Gracia, CEO of Seville Government Consulting, is one of the most thoughtful commenters around on government contracting issues as seen from a progressive contractor perspective -- i.e., one that is also mindful of the interests of the government and the taxpayer. I don't always agree with everything he writes, but I always take his views very seriously.

Jaime and I also share an interest in making government past performance evaluations a more meaningful part of the contracting process. Speaking for myself, I remain convinced that there is no single step the government could take to improve the performance of the contracting system than to make past performance an effective differentiator between excellent, acceptable and poor performance. We should penalize poor performers but also, importantly, reward the good ones. Customer decisions about whom to do business with based on a supplier's past performance are absolutely essential in the commercial market to making the free market work to satisfy customers.


Posted on Apr 15, 2014 at 10:45 AM4 comments

Taxes and software, take two

tax form and keyboard

Those with good memories may remember my blog post from a year ago about my terrible experiences as a first-time user of H&R Block tax software. Due to a software glitch, I spent hours in live chat with a company representative, finally unable to get the problem solved and being forced to paper file because of overrides I had to do on their forms to make my return correct.

Guess what?

The same thing has happened to me again this year.

This year involved different glitches from last year, but otherwise the story was the same -- although I fortunately was able to e-file my federal return, I ended up having to file paper state returns for both Massachusetts and New York.

On the New York state return, the problem did not appear until the "verification" function at the end of the return, which is the last step before the return is ready to file. (H&R Block software includes both "errors," which must be corrected before the return can be filed, and "verifications," which they ask you to check to make sure your entry is correct, but which ostensibly do not have to be changed in order to file your return.) My return, however, would not continue without addressing the "verification" issue, even though the form being verified was in fact there and completed.


Posted on Apr 11, 2014 at 3:20 PM3 comments

China dispatch: Students, trade and technology parks

U.S.-China conversation.  Shutterstock image.

Here’s a trio of Chinese miscellany gathered on my recent trip:

A new silicon city. Perhaps the most interesting thing the group of Kennedy School students I was chaperoning saw was in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu (home of China’s pandas, which were a close runner-up). A massive technology manufacturing and R&D center has been built as a southward extension of the existing city, completely transforming Chengdu.

The Chinese, who love stereotypes (there’s a stereotype!) will virtually always tell you that Chengdu people are relaxed and laid-back to the point of laziness, and that they have the prettiest women in China. Western China is generally poorer than the eastern coast, and the development of this enormous new city represents a decision by the central government to invest in Chengdu as a center for economic development of this region of China. So within a few years, on what had been mostly farmland, an enormous jungle of skyscrapers and factories has grown up to attract technology companies.


Posted on Apr 09, 2014 at 2:20 PM0 comments

Debacle or triumph: The deciding factors

Complexity (Shutterstock image)

Ever since the Obama Administration's health care websites crashed last fall, Washington has been trying to figure out what's wrong with the federal government's ability to do large-scale IT projects. Last week's story about the cave in Pennsylvania where federal retiree applications are processed manually, as reported in The Washington Post, only added to the overall impression that when it comes to information technology the federal government is the gang that can't shoot straight.

But if you think about it for a moment the government often achieves results ranging from credible to spectacular through contracting, including for IT. Just to take another story very much in the news — NSA snooping and hacking of electronic communications — the criticism against the agency is hardly that it haplessly lacks the capabilities to do its mission. On the contrary, its technological innovations and successes are the driving force behind the public outcry. Ditto with the drones developed for the Department of Defense. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has, over the years, signed contracts with researchers doing both basic research but also development that have played central, and sometimes the total, roles in developing the Internet, GPS technology, and Siri voice recognition software now used on smartphones. NASA has deployed a succession of amazing technologies over the decades — think of the moon mission and space walks.


Posted on Apr 01, 2014 at 2:23 PM3 comments

Don't call it derivative!

U.S.-China conversation.  Shutterstock image.

I got a real laugh out of a story appearing recently in China’s English-language China Daily. Entitled “Twist of Fortune,” it is about a restaurant two Americans have started in Shanghai, China, called “Fortune Cookie,” whose menu consists of U.S. versions of Chinese food.

Chinese who have visited or lived in the United States frequently comment, often with a smile, that the Chinese cuisine served in American Chinese restaurants is typically only vaguely related to Chinese cuisine served in China. Aside from often being more salty and less spicy, there are entire dishes – ranging from beef with broccoli to General Tso’s chicken to fortune cookies – that do not exist in China. (The biggest difference between Chinese food in the United States and in China, of which most Chinese are not aware, is the absence of dishes based on body parts Americans generally find unattractive, such as beef hearts, pig ears, duck tongues or chicken feet. Most Chinese cannot understand why Americans object to such food.)


Posted on Mar 28, 2014 at 7:50 AM0 comments

The latest in Chinese IT

U.S.-China conversation.  Shutterstock image.

When most people think of Chinese IT applications, they think – as is the case for Chinese products in many areas – of knockoffs. Baidu is a Chinese knockoff of Google. Renren is a knockoff of Facebook, and Taobao a knockoff of Ebay. For years, about the closest Chinese apps have come to something vaguely original has been with games, which is where many IT startups in China focus.

This has begun to change, however, in terms of both actual technology and the role homegrown tech is playing in society and everyday life in China.

The way was paved by weibo -- the term means "micro-blog" in Chinese -- which offered by one of the IT Chinese app conglomerates, (In the great tradition of finding creative ways to move between English and Chinese brand names -- immortalized by the Chinese word for "BMW," the similar-sounding moniker bao ma, which means "treasure horse" – the Chinese name for Sina is xin lan, meaning "great wave," but pronounced in Chinese very close to "Sina.")


Posted on Mar 26, 2014 at 5:36 AM2 comments

A somewhat revealing rubber stamp

U.S.-China conversation.  Shutterstock image.

Serious U.S. media devote a lot of attention these days to covering China. Rarely a day goes by, for example, that the New York Times doesn't have at least one story about China. Yet recently, what in China was considered a major political event occurred and got no coverage at all in the US press.

I am referring to the annual meeting of what the Chinese call the "two sessions" -- meetings of the National People's Congress, China's version of a legislature, and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. Even in China, attention this year was attenuated because of two breaking-news events: the killing of almost 30 people by knife-wielding assailants in Kunming, and the saga of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight to Beijing with mostly Chinese on board. Yet the two sessions were still a big story day after day.


Posted on Mar 21, 2014 at 12:41 PM1 comments

What McCaskill is missing about past performance data

steve kelman

Last week Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) held a hearing to complain about the lack of negative information about contractors in the government’s past performance database, citing specifically that there were no negative reports about BP – the company responsible for the huge Deepwater Horizon oil spill – and that CGI’s most-recent past performance rating before its role in was exceptional.  You could learn more about a company by Googling it, she complained, than by consulting the government’s past performance information.

As somebody who basically cut his teeth in government contracting on an effort to allow the government to use past performance in making source selection decisions – until the 1990s, it was not allowed! – I will confess to reacting to McCaskill’s point of view with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I definitely agree with her that the problem is rooted in agencies' reluctance to flag poor performance. "It’s almost like if a contracting evaluator gives negative information, they know they are going to get blowback from the contractor, right?" the senator said. “We let things slide because it’s too hard to fight it.’” This is indeed the biggest single problem with the past performance system as it currently operates.


Posted on Mar 13, 2014 at 5:27 AM9 comments

'Evidence-based government' and the FY 2015 budget

man studying data

As best I can tell from word searches on the Washington Post and New York Times websites, my favorite part of the President's budget did not make the mainstream media's near-exhaustive coverage at all.

The overlooked gem is the discussion of how the budget is seeking both to increase funding for new program efforts where there is actual good evidence, based on rigorous research, that they work -- and also to provide more funding for efforts to use social science research to find out whether programs work. Together, this approach goes under the moniker "evidence-based government." This section of the budget reflects what grew out of a call in instructions to agencies for this year's budget to include evidence-based initiatives in their submissions to OMB.


Posted on Mar 07, 2014 at 5:18 AM9 comments

This week in online disintermediation: Charities

transferring funds

One of the most pervasive phenomena of the Internet age has been disintermediation -- threats to established brokers or middlemen between consumers and service providers. This has very much hit the media, of course. With the rise of massive open online courses, it is starting to hit higher education. And now, according to a fascinating article in The New York Times, it is touching traditional nonprofits such as the United Way or Save the Children.

Nonprofits traditionally have acted as middlemen between people who want to contribute money to help a cause and the beneficiaries of said giving. The nonprofits help in choosing the appropriate beneficiaries to help, monitoring the giving, and often even deliver the service to beneficiaries as well. As the article notes, some charities have traditionally tried to create a personal connection between the giver and the beneficiary, as in the theme in Save the Children ads that you would "adopt" a specific child, but in reality these connections were never that direct.


Posted on Mar 04, 2014 at 10:09 AM0 comments

Why Hong Kong is worth watching

U.S.-China conversation.  Shutterstock image.

Last week, while the world's attention was focused on violence and human rights issues in Ukraine, I was in Hong Kong to give some lectures for the public administration program at the City University of Hong Kong. During the week I was there, increasing tensions between Hong Kong and mainland China were very much in the news, culminating in a Sunday demonstration sponsored by the Hong Kong Journalists Association protesting threats to press freedom from China.

Then, on Monday night Hong Kong time, just after I returned to the United States, these problems dramatically escalated after a gangland-style knife attack on the recently deposed editor of Hong Kong's leading independent newspaper, which left the journalist in critical condition. The story was quickly taken up on The New York Times website. Because of Hong Kong's very longstanding freedoms that now seem to be in question -- unlike Ukraine, Hong Kong has a long tradition of political freedom and the rule of law -- and because of what it says about how China is behaving in the world, these developments should worry people in the West, even though Hong Kong is a small and faraway place.


Posted on Feb 26, 2014 at 7:44 AM6 comments

ABBA, taxes and unintended consequences

ABBA album cover

To the occasional amazement or even consternation of friends and family, I am a huge fan of the seventies pop band ABBA. This partly reflects my taste for pop music over genres such as heavy metal or rap, and partly my long-time association with Sweden, ABBA’s home country. (As a sidebar, ABBA aficionados among this blog's readers -- if any -- should listen closely to ABBA songs such as Dancing Queen, where they make the extremely common pronunciation mistake by Swedes of pronouncing the “s” in music to sound like “sick,” because there is no “z” sound in Swedish, or the song Money, Money, where they say “money must be funny,” reflecting the fact that in Swedish the word for “fun” and “funny” are the same.)

At any rate, I recently saw a bizarre ABBA story reposted on Facebook from the London daily The Guardian, about the loud and mismatched costumes ABBA wore when they performed. The article quotes one of the group members as follows: "In my honest opinion we looked like nuts in those years. Nobody can have been as badly dressed on stage as we were."


Posted on Feb 21, 2014 at 12:13 PM2 comments

New Zealand civil service: A land without turkey farms

cartoon man and turkey

During my recent trip to New Zealand (I blogged last week about my general impressions of the country), I had a chance to meet with the head of the New Zealand civil service -- which, as in the United Kingdom, is a formal governmentwide position -- together with HR people from some of the New Zealand ministries. It was a wide-ranging conversation, but two snippets of it caught my attention more than anything on our official agenda.

In the course of our discussion, it came out that neither "retired in place" nor "turkey farm" had equivalent terms in the New Zealand public sector. Indeed, there were some chuckles around the room when I explained what each of these phrases meant.

(For non-U.S. readers, and perhaps some Americans unfamiliar with federal jargon, "retired in place" refers to a longtime employee who has psychologically tuned out, and is doing the bare minimum on the job while waiting for retirement. A "turkey farm," meanwhile, is a small office where managers park all the incompetent employees whom they can't get rid of because of civil service protections, creating a separate non-producing unit to prevent the turkeys from interfering with and demoralizing the productive employees.)


Posted on Feb 18, 2014 at 12:19 PM8 comments

Lessons from the French invasion of Silicon Valley

Map of Silicon Valley (PR Newswire/

Source: PRNewswire/

I noticed essentially no attention in the media to the visit by French President Francois Hollande to the Silicon Valley during his current U.S. visit. Interestingly, however, there was a fascinating article in the London-based Financial Times on the topic. It turns out there are about 60,000 French citizens living in California, one of the biggest French communities in the world outside France. And many of them are in the Silicon Valley doing startups.

Hollande would like to attract many of them back to France, but before he is able to do so, he needs to understand the reasons given in the article for why they came in the first place. (Hint: it’s not the architecture, and it’s not the food.)


Posted on Feb 14, 2014 at 9:05 AM0 comments

Greetings from New Zealand

steve kelman

I arrived for the first time in the Auckland, New Zealand, airport after a 13-hour flight from Los Angeles -- to give some lectures at Victoria University in Wellington -- and switched over to the domestic terminal for a short commuter flight to the tourist resort town of Rotorua (pronounced, weirdly for an American, something like "Roto Rooter," the clogged-drain company). Having arrived from the United States early, I was able at the last moment to switch to an earlier flight. I took my mostly full bottle of water, which I had been planning to drink on the wait for my connecting flight, and threw it in a garbage pail before entering the departure area -- only to discover there was no security checkpoint at all to get on the flight. It was an out-of-body experience. Just get on the plane.

I later discovered that several years ago Prime Minister Helen Clark eliminated security checks on domestic flights where the planes have fewer than 80 seats. Seems a bit risky to me -- couldn't New Zealand become a sort of hijacker magnet? -- but so far, no problems. (I was also told that on Australian domestic flights one may bring bottles of water aboard.)


Posted on Feb 12, 2014 at 12:53 PM4 comments

Business grads, vets and workforce diversity: Who should be on your team?

Org Chart Stock Art - Shutterstock

In my last blog post, I discussed some insights that surfaced at the most recent meeting of the Veterans Administration Acquisition Academy, on whose advisory board I sit. This time I want to discuss an issue that one of the board members raised.

The Defense Department, unlike civilian agencies, requires that new hires in contracting have significant prior coursework in business administration. This person said that, in her experience, there were very good young people being hired in civilian agencies who had been liberal arts majors in college, who would have been screened out by the Defense Department.

Somewhat later in the discussion, it was noted that almost half of new government hires right now are veterans, thanks to veteran preferences in the federal government personnel system. (This figure is of course considerably higher than that in the VA). Veterans, the person noting this pointed out, have been socialized into a very structured and hierarchical environment.


Posted on Feb 06, 2014 at 7:59 AM2 comments

Listening to some of the smartest government procurement people around

man graphs performance

It is a real pleasure for me to sit on the Board of Advisors for the Veterans Administration Acquisition Academy (VAAA), whose orientation towards teaching business skills and mission support – as well as its attention to teaching program management -- makes it a model for acquisition training efforts in the government. The board includes some very distinguished names in federal contracting, most (though not all) now retired from the government yet still very active. One of the things I get out of our occasional meetings is an opportunity to listen to what’s on the minds of some of the best minds in the field.

We spent most of the last meeting discussing “what is hot” and “what should be keeping you awake at night.” Here’s a report on some of what came out of the discussion:


Posted on Feb 03, 2014 at 6:50 AM2 comments

Procurement contests get their due

compass innovation

A nice email came into my mailbox the other morning from the Kennedy School media person, announcing that the General Services Administration had won the annual Innovations in American Government award co-sponsored by Harvard Kennedy School and the Ford Foundation, for its contest site. was the only federal winner this year. is GSA’s version of a platform for enabling procurement contests – an innovation pioneered a number of years ago by DARPA where the government outlines a performance challenge and promises a prize (usually money plus publicity) for the first entrant who successfully solves it. I have written a number of blog posts over the years advocating use of this idea in the procurement system. In fact, I’ve written about this so much that I got an email shortly after the announcement came out, from a federal contracting lawyer, asking whether I was behind the award to GSA. (Actually, for better or worse, I had nothing to do with it.)


Posted on Jan 27, 2014 at 9:54 AM5 comments

What makes Chinese students optimistic (and pessimistic) about the future of China?

U.S.-China conversation.  Shutterstock image.

As regular blog readers know, I meet a few times a year with Chinese college students visiting the United States in connection with a program called China Future Leaders. I typically as part of meeting with them take their temperature on some issue involving China, or China and the United States. This time I asked them the question: "What is one thing that makes you optimistic about the future of China for the next 15 years? What is one thing that makes you pessimistic?" I then allowed five students each to nominate something, and then the whole group -- about 60 or so -- were allowed to vote for one or two things each that made them most optimistic or most pessimistic.

For what made them most optimistic, the categories divided into those about the development of the Chinese economy ("economic growth" and "economic opportunities to bring new products and services to China") and those involving China's internationalization ("China's increasing status in the world" and "increasing numbers of Chinese going abroad and learning ideas from the world"). Also nominated was "good relationship between the United States and China."


Posted on Jan 22, 2014 at 1:32 PM5 comments

Corruption and bureaucratic rigidity

steve kelman

I saw a small story recently in the China-based Beijing Review that translated an article from the official Communist Party People’s Daily about a college admission reform that had been abandoned by one of China’s leading universities, Renmin University in Beijing. The article suggests a very interesting story about the relationship between the extent of corruption in a government and the degree of bureaucratic rigidity required in managing the public sector. It is a story with relevance to the United States as well. 

University admissions in China are based strictly on test scores in a college entrance examination run by each province . It is a very cut-and-dried, rigid system. No points are deducted for being a boring grind who does nothing but study for exams, no consideration of having been under the weather the day of the exam, no points added for creativity, community service, or for acting, musical or athletic ability. 


Posted on Jan 17, 2014 at 8:39 AM9 comments

Infrastructure in shambles? Contracting to the rescue?


In looking over my Facebook news feed a few days ago, I noticed that two different American Facebook friends had independently posted disparaging comments about American airports. One showed a dangling wire and frayed carpeting at a gate at Dulles Airport in Washington, the other commented how depressed they were to return from a trip abroad to JFK Airport in New York after having passed through spanking-new airports abroad. Both, independently, used the word “infrastructure” in their posts and made the point that America’s infrastructure is falling behind.

Infrastructure is a good solid second-tier issue in American politics, around all the time but never quite making it to the first level of the political agenda.

Should it be higher on our national agenda? For me – and I consider myself a fairly well-informed citizen, but hardly an expert on the country’s infrastructure needs – the answer is a resounding, “I’m not sure.”


Posted on Jan 15, 2014 at 6:27 AM3 comments

Political leaders take on ideology and special interests -- in Mexico

Don't be a cog in the machine

I have been spending a few days in Mexico City preparing for an executive education program for Mexican government officials (and others) that will be taught at the Kennedy School next week. I have been asking people here about some of the striking political events that have taken place during the first year of the six-year presidential term (with no re-election allowed) of Mexico's president, Enrique Pena Nieto. Pena has gotten the Mexican legislature to accept a significant number of wide-ranging political changes involving taxes and education. But the most dramatic reform, passed just a few months ago, involves allowing foreign participation in oil exploration and drilling, especially deepwater activities, in the state-owned Mexican oil monopoly Pemex.


Posted on Jan 10, 2014 at 12:27 PM2 comments

More stuff that's not around any more

Wang 2200 - Image via

Just before Christmas, I wrote a blog about phrases that may have disappeared from everyday language, which I encountered reading a 1961 novel about suburban life in the fifties called Revolutionary Road. I invited blog readers to ask friends, and in particular young people, which of these phrases they knew. I tried this myself with college-age students I met over the holidays, and discovered a mixed bag. Many of the young people had heard many of these expressions – such as “crummy,” “dopey,” or “loot” – but only through hearing parents, or even grandparents, use them. I was informed that “dope” as an adjective – as in the phrase “this is dope” – now can be used to mean great or cool, almost the opposite of its old meaning.


Posted on Jan 08, 2014 at 10:34 AM10 comments

A fun party game for the holidays?

Steve Kelman

I recently finished a really interesting novel about suburban life in the 1950s called Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. Published in 1961, it was made into a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet (no, it is not Titanic) in 2008. 

I liked this book just as a book, but it was especially appealing because it was written around the time the story was set. When I watch the depictions of the early sixties in, say, Mad Men, I can’t help but wonder whether they are superimposing 2010 stereotypes – smoking and treatment of women, for example – on the early sixties. What is very nice about this novel is that it was actually written at the time, so it’s not presenting our stereotypes of today about another era. 


Posted on Dec 23, 2013 at 7:42 PM2 comments

Take the pledge: 'I will care about management!'

pledge_man with hand over heart

Two presidents in a row have had their administrations badly wounded by problems with government management: George W. Bush with Hurricane Katrina and Barack Obama with the rollout.

Those fiascos are not just bad for presidents, they are bad for America. Only extremist anti-government ideologues can welcome the humiliation our country suffers because of those failures.

There are many talented political executives and senior civil service managers in the federal government who are improving the performance of their agencies. But those efforts are mercilessly swept away like a child's sand castle overwhelmed by a giant wave.

Even important government performance improvements, such as the reduction of backlogs at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office or the progress many agencies have made in reducing improper payments, leave no trace in the public consciousness.


Posted on Dec 20, 2013 at 1:26 PM1 comments

Reverse auctions grow up


You know that a new practice has "arrived" in government when it becomes the subject of its very own GAO report. This is now the case for the use of reverse auctions in contracting, which was illegal until the Federal Acquisition Regulation was changed in 1997 and now has become an accepted part of the federal contracting environment. (According to GAO, at the four agencies they examined, there was a 175 percent increase in the use of reverse auctions between 2008 and 2012.)

The title of the GAO report -- Reverse Auctions: Guidance is Needed to Maximize Competition and Achieve Cost Savings -- is a bit of a parody of itself; along with "Progress Made, Problems Remain," GAO reports love to call for more regulatory guidance. However, the report is generally a balanced one, clearly recognizing the positive role reverse auctions play as a cost-savings driver in the federal procurement environment but also making suggestions for improvement. (Full disclosure: I am on the board of advisors of Fedbid, the leading reverse-auction provider to the government.)


Posted on Dec 13, 2013 at 6:55 AM8 comments

A U.S. decline?

U.S.-China conversation.  Shutterstock image.

While in Sweden during the government shutdown/debt ceiling fiasco, I blogged asking whether Americans realized the huge damage such events do to America's reputation abroad. I also noted  that, while some Americans react by saying "who cares?" they ignore two important facts.

First, that America's soft power -- the attractiveness of our society and culture -- is one of our big economic and security advantages. And second, that the dollar's status as a reserve currency -- and the willingness of foreigners to hold dollars -- dramatically eases our economic situation. 

Recently in Singapore for a few days teaching change management to senior government civil servants, I had the chance to dine with a very wise Singaporean observer of the international scene -- and someone who feels the United States is in significant decline in the world, with Asia (particularly China) rising. 


Posted on Dec 10, 2013 at 7:25 AM3 comments

Three more China observations

steve kelman

I am back in China for a few days to teach executive education, and, as always, there are interesting things to observe:

1) One of my former students, Eugene Wang, now a dear friend and a property developer in Shanghai, hosted a dinner for me with Kennedy School alumni in Shanghai. The conversation in general was fascinating, but one discussion towards the end of the evening made a really big impression on me.

Most of those around the dinner table were extremely distrustful of and even hostile towards Japan, and one thought that war between the two countries was very possible. The issue goes back 70 years to Japan's behavior during World War II, when it brutally invaded China and massacred many civilians. The more nationalistic Japanese government under Prime Minister Abe has re-ignited old hostilities (also between Japan and Korea), centering around Japan's insufficient apologies for its behavior many decades ago.


Posted on Dec 03, 2013 at 7:55 AM2 comments

IT procurement and Searching for scapegoats?

contract signing

President Barack Obama has now raised the allegedly backward nature of the federal procurement system as a presidential concern. Speaking to a business audience about the failures of, he stated that what the government needed to do is to "blow up how we procure for IT." FCW has just asked on its cover, "Can IT Procurement Be Saved?"

I'm not sure we yet completely know the whole story of the problems with, but to me at this point it looks like there were two big problems with the system's development. One was the constantly changing requirements, a bane in federal IT development. In this case, new regulations were regularly coming down the pike as the system was being developed, creating an ever-moving target that receded each time code writers tried to catch up. The second was the failure to assign a systems integrator to be in charge of all of the many moving parts of this very complex system. That reflects a philosophy that began to spread in reaction to problems with giving systems integrators too much power in projects such as the Coast Guard's Deepwater boat development.


Posted on Nov 22, 2013 at 7:21 AM11 comments

Own a Picasso for $150 -- another interesting public-private partnership

Picasso Man with Opera Hat

This Picasso could be yours -- and you'd be funding reconstruction of the ancient Phoenican city of Tyre in the process.

This is another of my promised blog posts discussing interesting and innovative public-private partnerships that are emerging in the United States and around the world.

This one involves a Picasso painting called "Man with Opera Hat," worth about a million dollars. Want a chance to own it for 100 euros (about 150)? Buy a raffle ticket before the Dec. 17 drawing in Paris from the Pavillion of Art and Design. If you win, you will get the work.

A strange way to sell art, you might think, but there is a method to the madness. This raffle is a collaboration between Sotheby's auction house and a non-profit called the International Association to Save Tyre. Tyre is an ancient Phoenican city with many classical treasures that was significantly damaged in the Lebanese civil war of the 1980s, and has been waiting since then for governments to come in and provide reconstruction money. But government money never came in.


Posted on Nov 20, 2013 at 12:39 PM0 comments

The pitfalls of public-private partnerships


I promised in a recent post that I would write a few blogs about potentials and pitfalls in different kinds of public-private partnership, and here's the first.

There was a fascinating story recently in Beijing Review about an effort by a newly established not-for-profit to organize carpools in one district of the city in an attempt to contribute to  efforts to ease traffic congestion.  Anyone who has spent time in Beijing is certainly aware of the city's traffic nightmare – endless bumper-to-bumper car traffic and subway trains that (at virtually all hours of the day, not just rush hour) would probably make the animals in cattle cars feel like they have plenty of breathing space. Cars are also the second-largest source of the air pollution that is making residents' lives miserable and almost certainly killing large numbers of them prematurely.


Posted on Nov 13, 2013 at 5:18 AM3 comments

What's happening with Obamacare?

health insurance form

I have just returned from a month in Sweden, during which I have been following--albeit incompletely and at a distance--the issues surrounding the difficult rollout of the website and the more recent stories about people losing insurance coverage because their existing plans don't meet the minimum standards of the 2010 overhaul.

I try to keep partisan politics out of this blog, but both of these fiascos seem to me to illustrate the problems that can arise when political leaders (or their advisors) fail to think sufficiently about management and implementation issues involved in government programs.

As I understand it from the limited accounts I have seen, there were a number of warnings before the website was launched that it had not been sufficiently tested and that launching it was very high risk. (As a sidebar, it should be noted that people who asked why it should be so complicated or expensive for the government to "put up a website" misunderstand what had to do – link hundreds of technologically diverse databases from different insurance providers and government organizations, quite a complex task. This was nothing like some startup company establishing a webpage to tell customers about what the company does.)


Posted on Nov 05, 2013 at 9:41 AM10 comments

Swedes debate procurement, competition and public services

man graphs performance

As many Americans are aware, Sweden has an extensive welfare state, with child-care centers, home health care for the elderly and nursing homes paid for with public funds. As fewer Americans are aware, in the past 20 years, Sweden has moved dramatically -- often more so than the United States -- toward allowing private producers, including for-profit firms, to compete with local government for such services.

In the early 1990s, Sweden introduced the world's most comprehensive school voucher system for elementary and secondary education. Swedish parents are given a voucher that can be used at any school, public or private (including religious schools). For-profit schools are not only allowed, they dominate the non-government sector.

Similarly, for social services such as child care or nursing homes, many local governments have allowed private firms (and some non-profits) to compete with government, either through contracting or vouchers.


Posted on Nov 01, 2013 at 10:24 AM1 comments

A public/private partnership that is saving lives

Nokia Windows Phone

Mobile phones are key to Stockholm's innovative system for saving cardiac arrest victims by adding ordinary citizens to the emergency-response mix.

While spending time in Stockholm recently, I read an amazing, inspiring article in Sweden's leading newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, about an app that teams the public with health professionals to save the lives of people who fall victim to sudden cardiac arrest.

When a person goes into cardiac arrest, the survival rate decreases by 10 percent for each minute the person is not treated. Statistically, most cases of arrest occur in crowded places.

The cardiac arrest team at Sodersjukhuset, one of Stockholm's largest hospitals, decided to get the public involved in treating these cases. Volunteers can get trained in quick interventions for cardiac arrest (they sign up for training online). Once trained, volunteers are tied into the city's GIS-based system that alerts police, fire and ambulance units about the presence of any nearby cardiac arrest patient.


Posted on Oct 24, 2013 at 2:19 PM1 comments

Start-ups: Can there be too much of a good thing?

a group of young adults

Encouraging young people to take risks is well and good, but efforts to persuade students to skip college in favor of start-up work may go too far. (Stock image)

I was taken aback recently by a story in the Boston Globe with the provocative headline, "At MIT Event, Group Entices Students to Ditch School." The article discussed a visit to the MIT campus organized by the Thiel Fellowship,  which offers 20 bright students each year $100,000 to drop out of school and come to San Francisco to work on getting a start-up company off the ground. The Thiel Fellowship representative stated in an interview for the article that you don't necessarily have to go through these traditional gatekeepers to change the world. All you need to do is build it. (PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, who holds degrees in law and philosophy from Stanford, created the foundation.)


Posted on Oct 17, 2013 at 12:03 PM2 comments

World to US: You are destroying yourself!

capitol dome and bills

It is a common psychological phenomenon that when you are outside your own country, you are inclined to defend your country more than you would at home. I am in Sweden as the U.S. may be on the brink of going over the debt cliff, and I have to say that this nightmare has challenged my own adherence to this phenomenon more than anything else of the many times I have traveled abroad. There's not much I can say to all those outside the United States who are watching this spectacle with amazement and horror other than that I share those reactions.

The 7 a.m. segment of the TV news on one of the three main channels was completely devoted today to America's debt ceiling crisis, featuring an interview with Sweden's Conservative Minister of Finance Anders Borg. "The U.S. economy is in the process of healing itself," he told viewers. "That makes all this even more unnecessary." He added that, even if a temporary stopgap agreement is reached at the last moment, "It is completely unacceptable for the world economy that these crises return every other year."


Posted on Oct 16, 2013 at 8:11 AM7 comments

How agency heads are measuring to manage

measurement tool

In my last blog post, I reported on some results of research that I and Ron Sanders, the former long-time senior civil servant now at Booz Allen Hamilton, have been conducting. Booz Allen is sponsoring our work.

We have interviewed 20 Obama-era agency heads, 10 chosen by good-government experts as examples of outstanding leaders, and 10 more picked at random. In my last post I discussed what we discovered about how these executives approach decision-making.

We also asked them about their personal involvement in efforts to improve performance using performance measures, and in efforts to find efficiency savings in tight budget times. As with the decision-making questions, we didn't want to ask vague questions that would elicit predictable, socially-acceptable responses. We wanted to get to the details. So we asked them, for example, to name specific performance measures they personally followed, or to describe what happened at their most recent meeting to follow up on performance measures in their organizations (if they have such meetings at all).


Posted on Oct 09, 2013 at 6:48 AM0 comments

Why are hard decisions hard? Complexity vs. courage.

man on tightrope over sharks

At the Brookings Institution last week, Ron Sanders – the longtime senior federal career manager now at Booz Allen – joined me in presenting results of research that I had conducted with his firm's support.

The research involved 20 subcabinet agency heads serving in the Obama administration, 10 selected by good-government experts as ones who had done an outstanding job improving their agency's performance, another 10 chosen at random. I interviewed each, using the same set of questions, for several hours.

One group of questions concerned decision-making style. In formulating our questions, we were guided by the large body of academic literature on where decisions by government leaders can go wrong. Difficult decisions, the literature suggests, are typically very complex, with many facts and values at stake. Decision-making groups can, in theory, improve on individual decision-making by bringing forth a wider variety of knowledge and of points of view. However, decision-making groups are often prone to "groupthink" – situations where the group leader in effect stifles dissent, disregards the breadth of information and range of values, and the group reaches a decision too quickly, without considering alternatives and problems with the chosen course.


Posted on Oct 03, 2013 at 11:40 AM4 comments

Watching the drama from Sweden

locked doors

After waking up my first morning on a visit to Sweden, I was greeted with news of the government shutdown in the United States, the lead story on both the major local channels.

 The first words of the morning news anchor on Sweden's TV4 were: "'They did it,' says Barack Obama on his Twitter page." On TV1, the first words: "Now it's a fact – the U.S. has fallen off the budget cliff." (This beat out a story about a new international study which found that Sweden is the best country in which to be old.)  Since it is six hours later in Sweden than the United States, these 6:30 a.m. (Swedish time) broadcasts were 12:30 a.m. eastern time, only 30 minutes after the shutdown officially began. Both networks had live reports from their Washington correspondents reporting in the night darkness, with the Capitol in the background.


Posted on Oct 01, 2013 at 6:12 AM1 comments

Crowdfunding investigative journalism -- in China


I saw an amazing story in Global Times, the English-language edition of a Chinese paper and one of two nationwide English-language newspapers in China (China Daily is the other). Called "Journalist for Hire," it was about a Chinese journalist named Yin Yusheng, who was looking to raise money from the public to fund freelance research and writing for ideas he had for investigative journalism stories.

"I'm a senior reporter with extensive experience, and I'm not frightened by powerful people or violence," he wrote in his weibo (microblog) account and in an entry on an Ebay-like Chinese marketplace. "I will be an independent investigative reporter, not attached to any media agency."

He then described two specific ideas he had for stories he wanted to investigate – one of them about police officers who have been making corruption allegations against a local district attorney's office officials for several years – and invited the public to donate to support one or both of them. He said he would accept donations as low as 10 and as high as 1000 RMB (around $1.75 to $175) – he didn't want anything higher,  so that nobody could try to influence the content of his story – and would stop collecting donations for an article when they totaled 5000 RMB. As of the time the Global Times article was written, Yin had apparently reached that mark.


Posted on Sep 26, 2013 at 10:02 AM2 comments

Christianity grows in China

St. Ignatius Shanghai via wikipedia

St. Ignatius Cathedral in Shanghai, China. (Photo from Wikimedia)

There was a fascinating article – in of all places China Daily, the closest one comes to an "official" English-language newspaper in China – about the leader of the officially sanctioned Protestant churches in China calling for tailoring sermons for Chinese Christians based on their various personal backgrounds. 

Traditionally, many Christians in China, as in other Asian countries, have been highly educated, Westernized people, and Christians have often been associated with movements for political democratization and educational enlightenment. However, the article points out that in recent years, many new converts to Christianity in China have been underprivileged and often poorly educated migrant workers in big Chinese cities. According to one religious leader quoted in the article, the traditional Christians "go to church mostly for 'a lofty spiritual need,' [while] migrant workers are seeking advice and comfort on everyday difficulties of life. … [They] are under great pressure, and they especially lack family warmth and help." 


Posted on Sep 20, 2013 at 10:27 AM4 comments

Talent vs. grit

men talking

Adam Grant, a young tenured professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, may be the best new researcher studying organizations in many years. I have written columns in the past on some of Grant's work on prosocial motivation, which is potentially very relevant to motivating employees in government, and I plan to write a column about his new book, Give and Take, once I've finished reading it (I'm about two-thirds through now). 

This post concerns one brief discussion he has, less related to the main theme of the book, that I think is relevant to anybody leading employees.

The book details evidence suggesting that people who turn out to be outstanding in endeavors such as music or tennis (and presumably in other ones as well) are distinguished less by extraordinary talent than by extraordinary motivation. Looking at the early experiences of concert pianists who were finalists in a prestigious international competition, researchers "discovered an unexpected absence of raw talent."  These eventual bloomers did not win many of their early, local competitions. They also typically had piano teachers from their neighborhoods rather than experts.


Posted on Sep 12, 2013 at 10:52 AM3 comments

More Florentine observations

statue in florence

A statue in Florence, Italy. Photo via Wikimedia by By MarcusObal [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (License.)

The center of Florence is completely dominated by tourists in a way one seldom sees.  Imagine if the only people walking on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, Fifth Avenue in New York, or even the heavily-touristed Champs-Elysees in Paris were tourists, with few residents. That's what the center of Florence is like: Wall-to-wall tourists, many of them in tour groups, led by guides speaking a bewildering collection of languages (I even heard Swedish), most with little flags with a group number on the top. As a single tourist, I got accosted outside the Cathedral by two people offering to be my personal tour guide.

The architectural style through much of the city is relatively similar – sepia stucco three-story houses with green shutters to keep out the sun (which weirdly do not, at least at the hotel and conference center, seem to open. At least, I couldn't figure out how to open them). It is old and charming, though not particularly fancy -- compared, say, with Paris. At the end of the 19th century, the Piazza della Republica, in the center of the city on the site of the old Roman Forum--a rundown area that was also the site of the city's Jewish ghetto for many centuries--was razed and replaced with vaguely imposing neoclassical buildings, whose style is not as grandiose as the inscription on the biggest of them: "From long-time squalor to a new life." As I looked at the inscription, I wondered if Italy's clock was being run backwards, from a new life back to squalor. The Renaissance-era square right near the Uffuzi art museum was the site of the "bonfire of the vanities," a burning of ostentatious possessions encouraged by the late 15th-century religious reformer Savonarola. The name of this practice  – I hadn't known this – gave Tom Wolfe the title for his novel about Wall Street in the 80s.


Posted on Sep 10, 2013 at 2:42 PM0 comments

In Florence, Italy (for the first time)

florence cathedral

Cathedral in Florence, Italy.

I have traveled relatively little in Italy, mostly because I prefer to visit countries where I speak the language-- or at least am studying it--and I speak no Italian. But on my way to a recent conference, I spent some time in one of the premier tourist locations in the world: Florence, home of the Medicis and of major collections of Italian Renaissance art.

It is a rather small city, overwhelmingly dominated by tourists, and there has been essentially no new construction in the last century or more. Several blocks from my hotel, the city suddenly comes to an end, in a way I have never seen anywhere before – the old houses along the river suddenly stop, and, rather than being replaced by more spread-out, newer construction, the city simply runs out, replaced by woods. It looks really unusual. The same is the case at the other end of the city.


Posted on Sep 06, 2013 at 2:42 PM4 comments

Are government-focused small businesses innovating?

light bulb

I recently was reading two magazines at around the same time. One was a hard-copy issue of FCW, and the other a recent issue of Boston magazine, our local city magazine, analogous to The Washingtonian in DC. (Yes, I still read hard copy magazines, and yes I am a notorious multitasker, always reading several different things at one time.)

FCW featured the annual "Fast 50," the 50 fastest-growing federal government contractors. (Actually, the list is produced by FCW's sister publication Washington Technology, and the weblink is at their site.) Boston had two articles that caught my eye. One was about a small organization in the Office of the Mayor called the Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics, which works on citizen-centered IT applications. The other, perhaps seemingly even more far afield, was an article on the burgeoning trend of new IT applications that involve people sharing their possessions with others for a fee. A company called Airbnb, which allows people to rent out rooms in their homes on a periodic basis,  apparently led this trend.


Posted on Sep 03, 2013 at 12:16 PM5 comments

The Air Force launches a 'collaboratory'

Air Force Collaboratory

The Air Force recently launched a website called "The Air Force Collaboratory," which entices young people to participate in an online dialogue and share ideas for solving (initially) three unclassified research projects in which the Air Force is engaged.  None of the projects is directly (or at least exclusively) military in nature.  One involves developing technology to allow the Air Force quickly to determine the location of survivors of building collapses; a second focuses on a new kind of robot with various search and rescue capabilities; and a third involves determining the proper point in space to which a new GPS satellite should be launched.

The first-level purpose of the site is to involve young people, in a collaborative way, in dealing with a tough technical challenge for the government.  This is not a contest; there are no prizes.  Instead, the site appeals both to a desire to excel and a desire to serve, both important themes for the Air Force.


Posted on Aug 27, 2013 at 2:06 PM0 comments

Meeting again with Chinese students in Boston

Edward Snowden

Most Chinese students recognize Edward Snowden on sight, Steve Kelman finds, and their opinions on his actions are as divided as Americans'. (Photo by The Guardian newspaper.)

Despite the economic slowdown in China, the number of student delegations coming to Boston from the Beijing-based China Future Leaders organization continues to rise -- two groups have come in the last month, and another group will come at the end of September. I enjoy meeting with these students and taking their pulse a little bit on issues involving how they see their society and relations between China and the United States.

During these last two visits, toward the beginning of my presentation I flashed a picture of Edward Snowden on a screen and asked if they knew who this was. Both times, rustles of nervous laughter and other sounds arose from the group; by show of hands, most everybody recognized him.


Posted on Aug 21, 2013 at 5:23 AM3 comments

Better service, one smile at a time

While on the way to the United States from Australia, I got off my plane in Singapore and promptly repaired to the men's room. On leaving, I noticed a TV-size screen inviting me to rate the facilities by touching the screen – with five options, ranging from a super-smile to a super-frown. (No words were used.) 

I then went over to the airport information counter to ask where to meet my connecting flight. Again, next to each of the two customer services representatives was a screen with the five faces.

In times of tight budgets, some government employees may become more inclined to ask why any of their agency's resources are being spent measuring their performance rather than on performing. Performance measurement is important whether budgets are scant or generous because it can improve performance. Nonetheless, in tight budget times it becomes imperative to look for ways to develop lower-cost metrics.


Posted on Aug 13, 2013 at 12:16 PM5 comments

How to measure training effectiveness

measurement tool

Training, always an appealing target for cuts in tight budget times, has also come under a further cloud in the wake of the government's conference hysteria, since there is sometimes an overlap between the two. Many believe that training is a crucial part of obtaining good employee performance, but others argue that a lot of training provided by government agencies or by vendors under contract to government, is rote and not engaging.

This cries out for performance measurement, to develop information about which training providers are doing a better or worse job, and to provide a series of natural experiments that could produce improvements in training offerings. If some ways of training on similar topics produce better results than others, we need to learn what distinguishes success from failure so we can spread good practice.


Posted on Aug 08, 2013 at 12:34 PM6 comments

OMB's evidence memo deserves praise

analytics concept art

By coincidence, only a few days before I wrote my most recent blog post on use of evidence to improve outcomes in emergency rooms after the Boston Marathon bombings and to reduce binge drinking at Dartmouth College, a memo came out from OMB Director Sylvia Mathews Burwell and three others in the White House about next steps in the evidence and innovation agenda. (Raise your hand if you didn't know there was an evidence agenda.)

Regardless of whether the "evidence agenda" in the White House is well-known, this memo is good news, in two respects. First, evidence is a good thing to help us make decisions. This statement is not necessarily as uncontroversial as it might sound. In political debates, Republicans have often been averse to evidence about phenomena in the natural world (climate change or evolution), while Democrats have often been averse to evidence about government programs, out of a worry that gathering evidence might show a lack of impact.


Posted on Aug 02, 2013 at 1:47 PM3 comments

Making better use of evidence

open eye and data

The front page of Sunday's Boston Globe had two articles (of a total of five on the front page) about efforts to improve social outcomes by gathering evidence about what works and what doesn't. The top article on the front page was headlined "Hospitals size up the lessons of Marathon attacks." Trauma care for Marathon bombing victims was, on the whole, magnificent – not a single person who arrived in an emergency room alive died in the hospital – but nonetheless the receiving hospitals are now in the process of after-action reviews looking through the details of what happened, which will produce reports that will be shared with hospitals around the country.


Posted on Jul 30, 2013 at 8:04 AM3 comments

OFPP administrator hones in on past performance

man graphs performance

The leadoff presentation at the National Contract Management Association today was Joe Jordan, the administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. At the beginning of his remarks, he spoke about the use of past performance in government contracting. To put it mildly, his approach was an enormous breath of fresh air.

His first step, he told us, was to get past-performance report cards submitted more reliably. But he also clearly recognized that upping the quantity of these reports is only a start. The next step is to improve the quality of these report cards, so they can actually be used as differentiators in source selection decisions.

He illustrated the problem by talking about looking for a bed-and-breakfast place during a recent vacation. Like most people, he went onto Trip Advisor and Yelp to check customer reviews of B&B’s. He could see positive and negative reviews. When there were negative reviews, sometimes the B&B responded, explaining corrective actions they had taken or sometimes giving their own version of events. As a consumer, he could judge the balance of these reviews, and the plusses and minuses they showed, including which criteria for evaluating the B&B were most important to he and his wife.


Posted on Jul 23, 2013 at 8:52 AM8 comments

Live blogging from the National Contract Management Association World Congress

The Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center, site of the World Congress of the National Contract Management Association.

I am at the Opryland Convention Center, in a very rainy Nashville, Tenn., for the World Congress of the National Contract Management Association (NCMA) – the association for government contracting professionals in government and companies.

I arrived late Sunday and quickly proceeded to a barbeque dinner just off-site. I immediately noticed just how little the restaurant patrons "looked like America" – it was pretty much a sea of middle-aged white faces, with no blacks, and I did not see any Latinos. The only Asian-Americans were at my table. So it seems country music still attracts only a limited constituency.

The conference is huge (a wild guess from a plenary this morning is perhaps 700 folks, though I don't regard myself as an estimation expert), but government attendance is way down – 75 percent from last year, according to some of the government employees in attendance. They told me that their attendance needed to be approved by the agency head or another high person in the organization as being "mission-critical." I have run into three government people so far who are paying their own way to be here!


Posted on Jul 22, 2013 at 3:34 PM1 comments

The story of Carl S. English Jr.

gardens brochure

I have been visiting the Pacific Northwest to give a speech at a government conference – the weather is comfortably in the high 70s ' (for non-US readers, that's about 25 C.), with low humidity and blue skies. It is nice to be here in Seattle rather than the hot and humid East.

I have taken advantage of my trip to visit the Army Corps of Engineers canal lock system at the entrance to Seattle on Puget Sound, which is open to the public. The lock system itself is a great example of a modest government infrastructure investment that has created enormous economic benefits: the port of Seattle is very important to trade between the US and Asia.

However, I'm not writing about my visit because of the lock itself. We learned during the interpretive tour of the lock that the site is the only Corps of Engineers location in the country that also includes a botanical garden, the Carl S. English Jr. Botanical Garden. (Here is a link to a Youtube video about the garden.)


Posted on Jul 18, 2013 at 6:48 AM1 comments

What to make of GSA's reverse auction play

GSA's reverse auctions won't have an auctioneer with a gavel, but Steve Kelman wonders if they'll even be fair to other players. (Stock image)

As FCW has reported, GSA launched a reverse auction site last week. As many blog readers are aware, I sit on the Board of Advisors of FedBid, the commercial company that has introduced reverse auctions to many government agencies and is the leading reverse auction services provider in this market. I have been asked, not surprisingly, what my reaction is to GSA’s new site, which appears to have been developed to compete with FedBid and other commercial reverse auction providers. (Let me note that I speak only for myself here, not FedBid.)

As a general matter, competition is a good thing for any market, including the market for reverse auction services. Like any other market, as demand for reverse auctioning in government grows, it will inevitably create more and stronger competition. On the other hand, there could be intellectual property issues with GSA’s tool (I claim no expertise in IP law), and there also is a philosophical issue about whether it is appropriate to use government funds to develop an application that is already commercially available, which will then compete with private companies while charging government customers nothing.


Posted on Jul 16, 2013 at 1:24 PM11 comments

Why a GAO report documenting improvement is not good news

man graphs performance

The Government Accountability Office recently issued a new report called "DOD Acts to Improve the Reporting of Past Performance Information", documenting progress the Defense Department has made getting past-performance report cards on contractors submitted into DOD's past-performance database on time. Now 74 percent of reports are being submitted on time, compared to 56 percent two years ago.

Sounds like a good news story, right?

I'm not so sure.

Done right – and the government currently is a long ways from doing it right, unfortunately – past-performance report cards are one of the most powerful tools in the government's toolkit to incentivize better vendor performance. Everybody knows that considering the past performance of people from whom we buy is one of the most powerful tools customers have to make the market system work better – suppliers treat us right in the hope of getting our repeat business.


Posted on Jul 11, 2013 at 2:10 PM5 comments

How good government made airline seats safer

Asiana air crash

The wreckage of an Asiana Air jetliner rests on the ground where it crashed at the San Francisco airport. (AP photo)

There have been many comments about the mercifully modest – though of course still very sad – number of casualties in the crash landing of Asiana flight 214 in San Francisco over the weekend. A report on the NBC Nightly News Sunday evening noted that this was the latest in a series of crash landings over the past few years where the death toll was noticeably lower than used to be common.

There was a report on CNN that I have not seen taken up anywhere else regarding the development of secure airplane seats that hold up to crash shock better. The design reduces the chance that the seats will fly off their moorings, taking the passengers with them, and hitting walls, ceilings and each other at high force. There was also a story in the Huffington Post about improvements in airplane design that have made planes safer.


Posted on Jul 08, 2013 at 10:19 AM2 comments

Acquisition lessons from the private sector

man graphs performance

It is common knowledge that the government buys a lot of services – over $300 billion worth last year – and that it's often an area particularly ripe for improvement. The Government Accountability Office recently issued what I thought was a genuinely helpful report, called, "Leading Commercial Practices Can Help Federal Agencies Increase Savings When Acquiring Services."

The report is about things the government might learn from looking at the practices of large commercial firms in buying services.

The first thing to note is that savings opportunities are far from trivial. Dell achieved 23 percent savings in its services purchases in the first year that it put an emphasis on improving services procurement, and has been saving an additional 10 percent a year since.


Posted on Jul 02, 2013 at 1:27 PM4 comments

Scandalous overrreaction?

risk management

The various scandals over spending on government conferences, and other problems within the IRS, have put a spotlight on an important question: Does the attention given such happenings affect the quality of government management?

For the inspectors general whose reports typically follow these scandals and, I dare say, for the public, the answer is clear: Exposing scandal raises the price for wrongdoing and incompetence, and if you raise the price of something, you get less of it. Exposure of scandals is thus good for government management. QED.

Yet I am guessing that many government managers themselves – and, perhaps more importantly, outside experts on government management – are not so sure.

The downside of scandal was illustrated in concrete terms in a recent op-ed by Defense Logistics Agency manager Joe Bednar, entitled "Enough Bureaucracy Already," appearing in Federal Times. Bednar notes that in his agency, routine actions to complete a financial obligation went through 12 reviews as of 2010. To an outsider, that sounds like a lot. Obviously, there need to be checks and balances on dispersing money – but are 12 approvals really needed?


Posted on Jun 27, 2013 at 1:34 PM8 comments

Who will take the pledge?

hand in pledge position

I was speaking with a group of contracting professionals earlier this week when one of them, describing a successful effort to turn around a problem contract, mentioned that he set himself a series of goals for improvement to encourage himself to strive higher.

His discussion took me back a long time ago to my work as administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. Part of my philosophy then was that if you wanted change and improvement, you could not be content to just talk about it. You had to get started actually doing something. Shortly after I became administrator, I worked with agency procurement executives to sign public pledges. There were two: for the signatory's agency to double use of the purchase card in a year, and to make past performance a significant source selection factor for some specific named procurements that were coming up.


Posted on Jun 21, 2013 at 9:50 AM8 comments

Taking the pulse of contracting professionals at the Bureau of Prisons


A common theme in contracting experiences both good and bad: Writing an accurate set of requirements, so that the product or service meets the agency's expectations, is tough.

I just had a chance to speak at the annual procurement training meeting of the Bureau of Prisons, the part of the Department of Justice that runs the federal prison system. The overwhelming majority of the contracting officials in the audience reported that they had started their careers as corrections officers, and many of them still have "other duties as assigned" at the prisons at which they work – ranging from being one of those present keeping an eye on prisoners while they eat meals to accompanying foreign prisoners on flights from prisons in their own countries to ones in the United States. How many other contracting officials may be required to carry a weapon as part of their work duties?


Posted on Jun 19, 2013 at 9:29 AM0 comments

The challenge for bosses: Learning from dissent


Managers do not always take disagreement well, research finds. (Stock image)

A lab experiment conducted by Ethan Burris, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business, and published in a recent issue of the Academy of Management Journal indicates that leaders often react negatively to suggestions that their favored course of action might have problems. In the experiment, teams of four students were asked to solve a business problem involving a supply-chain decision. All the team members were given a set of facts that suggested a certain approach was best. One member of the team was given additional facts that, if explored properly, would clearly show that a different approach would work better. That member was also instructed to make his or her views known during the group discussion.


Posted on Jun 17, 2013 at 11:55 AM2 comments

Unintended benefits

NOAA storm imagery

Weather data from government agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is but one example of federal spending that can be put to good commercial use. (NOAA photo)

The cover story in the June 1 issue of CIO magazine is called "Big Data from Above." The article is filled with fascinating examples of the various ways companies are using weather data to help conduct business – to time retail promotions, to direct stock to one region of the country rather than another or to plan for changes in demand. The manufacturer of Claritin, for example, used mid-range weather information to predict increased demand for allergy products.

There is even an example of an insurance company using weather information to detect fraud in insurance claims for hail damage.


Posted on Jun 14, 2013 at 12:09 PM0 comments

Can feds harness the global workforce?


The rise of a global marketplace may make services much less expensive. Steve Kelman wonders if government can take advantage. (Stock image)

Last week's Economist tells a story, in an article entitled "The Workforce of the Cloud," about a private company that needed to hire somebody to translate a video.

"For translating a 22-minute video from English into Spanish at short notice, 7Brands Global Content, a professional translation firm based in New York, quoted 'approximately $1,500,'" a fee the article states is in line with the going rate for established translation companies.

The customer then decided to try two online "talent exchanges," and (the largest of the firms in this space) Both companies have a large stable of freelancers available to bid on various kinds of tasks (Elance has 2.5 million people registered, about a third in the United States and the rest abroad). The customer screened the bids to weed out those with little or no experience or without good customer ratings, and found quoted prices of as low as $22. (That's $22 as a fixed price for the whole job, not per hour.)


Posted on Jun 11, 2013 at 12:09 PM1 comments

Does government reward innovation?

compass innovation

The culture of government in China, like the culture of that society in general, is quite punitive. "Punishment" is a common word. When something goes wrong, the instinct is often to arrest somebody first and ask questions later. Subordinates fear and bow to bosses in a way that reminds one of Western organizations from a century ago or more.

So it was with considerable surprise that I read an article in Hong Kong's South China Morning Post while in China recently, discussing newly announced efforts in Shanghai – a previous pacemaker in China whose local economy is now somewhat faltering – to encourage reforms in local government policy and management by stopping the punishment of well-intentioned innovations that fail.


Posted on Jun 07, 2013 at 12:09 PM4 comments

Why the IRS dance video shouldn't be a scandal

IRS dance vid

IRS employees learn to line-dance in a video that has created a new controversy for the agency. Is it another example of wasteful spending?

As of early Monday morning, a Google search of "IRS dance video" yielded over 64 million hits, not bad for a story that only broke over the weekend. At the risk of unleashing a torrent of abuse, may I ask why?

This video lacks some of the features that gave legs to last year's GSA conference scandal. The GSA conference took place in Las Vegas (known for its glitz and excess, even though it's really an inexpensive place to hold conferences). There were photos of the offending GSA regional administrator lolling in a huge hot tub, and videos shown on TV appeared to show employees advocating being lazy or wasting money (though both videos were parodies).


Posted on Jun 03, 2013 at 12:09 PM10 comments

Strangling Google in China?

china cyber

While in China recently, I tried Googling a name I wanted to learn more about. Google is not blocked in China, but it has had a very poor relationship with the Chinese government, and it has moved its server to Hong Kong. Gradually, Google's Chinese market share has gotten smaller and smaller, and it is totally dominated by its home-grown competitor Baidu – though I know a number of Chinese students who want better access to American material who use Google. (China is, I believe, the only country in the world where Google doesn't have the leading market share in search.)

The words I searched were in no way politically sensitive, and more than a million hits came up. I then tried to click through to some of the articles and ... nothing happened. I didn't get the "Internet Explorer Cannot Display This Webpage" screen that typically occurs when one tries to access a blocked website, such as Facebook or a forbidden word search. I double-clicked, the entry highlighted itself, and then nothing came up – I just stayed on the Google page.


Posted on May 30, 2013 at 12:09 PM4 comments

Keeping time (and tune) with students in Shanghai

karaoke sign

Karaoke – called "KTV" in the Chinese-speaking world– is a staple of university-student entertainment in China. The karaoke venues are (at least in China) big, modern locations with bright and often pulsating lights in the public area, and then divided up into small rooms where groups from two to maybe eight can sit in front of a biggish-size TV screen. A computer offers a wide variety of popular songs. Guests choose songs, and the songs then appear on the TV screen: Music, a visual (sometimes the artist singing the song, sometimes actors who look sort of like castoffs from TV ad casting calls), and the lyrics, with a moving ball telling the viewer when to sing each word.

There are usually two microphones in the room, and anyone who wants to can sing along, with the microphone somehow mysteriously improving the quality of the voice of the person singing into it.


Posted on May 28, 2013 at 12:09 PM7 comments

How the IRS scandal is like ethnic profiling

TSA agent

One might not think that questions of airport security and IRS scrutiny would be connected, but Steve Kelman finds a link. (Stock image)

In following the IRS Tea Party scandal, I've been struck by an analogy. The targeting of Tea Party applications for tax-exempt status and debates about whether, say, young male Muslims should be targeted for extra scrutiny at airports raise the same set of issues.

It is simply a fact that most terrorists threatening the United States, Europe or Israel are young male Muslims. A strong argument could be made that random extra scrutiny of airport passengers is highly inefficient – producing bizarre anomalies such as heightened scrutiny for 85 year-old grandmothers – and that ethnic profiling would increase the chance of catching a terrorist. Indeed, this has been Israel's strategy at airports.


Posted on May 23, 2013 at 12:09 PM7 comments

The Air Force goes to the front lines for cost-savings ideas

illustration dollar sign in vise

The Air Force's "Every Dollar Counts" campaign intends to put the squeeze on costs. (Stock image)

My friend Jim Tisdale at Los Angeles Air Force Base has called to my attention a campaign that is going on this month (it started May 1 and goes through May 30) to involve frontline uniformed and civilian Air Force people in efforts to save money in a tight budget environment where the Air Force has taken $11 billion in sequestration cuts. Jim is a dedicated contracting professional who takes seriously the cost-savings mission of contracting.

The campaign is called "Every Dollar Counts," and you can learn more about it by going to the Air Force home page. There you will see the campaign as the "featured link" in the top left corner of the site (just above the second featured link, on Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention). If you click through, you will see an interview with Gen. Larry Spencer, vice chief of staff of the Air Force, a place to submit suggestions, and a listing of some suggestions that have been accepted so far.


Posted on May 16, 2013 at 12:09 PM4 comments

The power of slow thinking

book cover

In 2011, Daniel Kahneman published a book called "Thinking, Fast and Slow," which was a non-fiction bestseller. I write about it now because it just came out in paperback. It is a great read, and I guarantee it will teach you a great deal.

Kahneman is an emeritus professor at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the first non-economist by profession to win the Nobel Prize in Economics. In his book, he tells us that our minds have two systems for making decisions, which he straightforwardly calls System 1 and System 2.

System 1 has arisen from millennia of human evolution and from repeated experiences people have over the course of their lives. System 1 is fast. It provides intuitive reactions to what we should do. System 2 is methodical and deliberative thinking, when we ponder evidence and weigh pros and cons. It is much slower, and it takes mental effort and energy. Often, Kahneman notes, System 2 acts as a check on System 1.

Academics like me and Kahneman are unsurprisingly (dare I say instinctively?) System 2 believers, though a minority of scholars who study decisions argue that such expertise has become largely intuitive.

Here's what Kahneman says: For many situations in which our reactions are governed by System 1, speed is essential. We are extremely sensitive to danger, quickly noticing and reacting to it because a microsecond advantage could determine whether our pre-human ancestors were eaten or not. Furthermore, in situations in which people have frequent experience — say, in playing basketball or diagnosing disease — and where feedback about the result of a decision is quick and unambiguous, the mind eventually develops good intuition that often cannot be expressed in words.

However, System 1 often does not provide an intuitive answer. To cite an example Kahneman provides, there is no System 1 answer to the question "How much is 49 times 27?" We need to develop and use System 2 to help us.

Beyond that, though, System 1 answers are sometimes just wrong. Our instincts lead us in a direction that generally makes sense but produces absurd results. These are the kinds of situations Kahneman became famous for studying. People will prefer being subjected to 10 minutes of severe pain followed by 5 minutes of mild pain rather than only 10 minutes of severe pain, though a moment's thought tells us this is irrational. Many experiments show that people are dramatically overconfident about how much they know or how successful their efforts are likely to be. And in situations in which there is not frequent, unambiguous feedback, expert intuitions have a poor record of success.

So, true to his status as a professor, Kahneman wants to see more System 2 in our decisions. But System 2 takes effort, and our minds prefer to be lazy. And often the times we most need System 2 as a check are those when we least realize we need it because System 1's message is so unequivocal.

At the end of the book, Kahneman extends his analysis from the individual to the organization.

"Organizations are better than individuals when it comes to avoiding errors because they naturally think more slowly and have the power to impose orderly procedures.… Whatever else it produces, an organization is a factory that manufactures judgments and decisions. Every factory must have ways to ensure the quality of its products in the initial design, in fabrication and in final inspections."

Sounds like a topic for another book.

Posted on May 09, 2013 at 12:09 PM1 comments

GSA is saying what?

OASIS logo

Stan Soloway, head of the Professional Services Council and about the most-enlightened government contracting trade association executive out there, wrote a column recently in Washington Technology (subscription required) discussing the widely watched GSA OASIS procurement, which will be a crucial GSA multiple-award vehicle for IT-related professional services.
Soloway is effusive in his praise for the pre-solicitation communication with industry about the content of the RFP. As he notes, in an environment where many inside the government are not taking advantage of the opportunity for the government to improve an RFP based on industry comments, this is good news.
But as he also notes, there is also something very disturbing about the draft RFP:  it states that past-performance information from government projects will be counted more heavily than information from work that contractors have done for private-sector customers.
This is really not a good idea.
One of the problems with the government's procurement system is that government-unique regulations create a barrier to commercial, predominantly private-sector oriented companies doing more business in the government marketplace. This is a problem because -- like any tariff barrier -- it creates a hothouse environment where competition is lower and insiders can gain business based on mastery of procurement rules more than satisfying their customers. And the commercial environment is one where performance is strongly prioritized, and failure to perform is punished more swiftly than in a government environment. It's good for the government to hire firms that are used to such an environment.
Some government folks feel more comfortable with government-unique contractors who know the government's environment better. But if I were in the government and wanted to put a premium on performance, I would want to be sure I had access to predominantly commercial firms. At a minimum, such firms should be in a multiple-award mix, to increase the range of options available to government customers.
GSA is arguing that it's easier to evaluate past performance on government business. I don't buy this -- if anything, the opposite may be true. The RFP should require bidders wishing to give commercial references to list their last five jobs over a certain dollar amount, and government people should just call references and briefly interview them. The information -- unfortunately -- might actually be better than much of the material in the government's past-performance databases.
The good news is that, with the consultation they are doing, the OASIS program still has time to rectify this mistake.


Posted on May 08, 2013 at 12:09 PM10 comments

What happens when the kids go for startups?

young people working

A growing interest among graduating students in starting their own businesses could become another obstacle for federal recruiting efforts, Steve Kelman fears. (Stock image)

For the last 20 years or so, it has been an ongoing struggle at the Kennedy School to keep up the numbers in terms of our master's graduates going into the public or nonprofit sectors for their first jobs. The salary gap between working at a private-sector firm and working for government or most nonprofits grows by the year. The prestige of government employment continues to take a beating. And, as if all of that isn't enough, government proceeds to shoot itself in the foot with an employment system that keeps applicants waiting for offers months longer than they do with leading private employers. Government also often fails to provide young people exciting first jobs.


Posted on Apr 30, 2013 at 12:09 PM1 comments

Police technology improves

police car

The investigation of the Boston Marathon bombings showed how police work is being changed by technology. What's interesting about that is that police hardly fit the stereotype of the tech-literate, and also that police organizations are often seen as being difficult to change.

By amazing coincidence, in the week before the bombings, The New York Times and The Boston Globe each ran articles on how police were using IT to help deal with potential crimes and fight crime.

The article in the Times was about police using smartphones to find information about residents of a given address. The databases linked together on the smartphone screen provide the officer with "access to the names of every resident with an open warrant, arrest record or previous police summons; each apartment with a prior domestic incident report; all residents with orders of protection against them; registered gun owners; and the arrest photographs of every parolee in the building." If the police are called for a domestic dispute, they can immediately see whether the person involved has previous arrests or convictions for domestic violence.


Posted on Apr 26, 2013 at 12:09 PM0 comments

Terrorism, the government and bias

marathon probe

Investigators looking for clues and evidence after the bombing at the Boston Marathon. (AP photo)

Everyone knows the phrase "seeing is believing." It suggests a nice, comforting relationship between data and conclusions. We look at the data, and then draw conclusions.

But the distinguished organizational studies scholar Karl Weick has suggested that people's minds often don't work that way. Instead, our minds often work the opposite way – "believing is seeing." If we believe something is true, we notice evidence for it; if we don't, we don't notice the same evidence.

There's a classic lab study in social psychology where one group of college males is shown the picture of an attractive woman, the other group a picture of an unattractive woman. Both groups then listen to a recorded interview with a woman's voice and are told the interview is with the woman whose picture they have seen. Both groups hear the identical recording. However, the students who have seen a picture of an attractive woman rate the interview content as friendlier, more intelligent, and the woman as having a nicer voice than the other students who heard the exact same interview.


Posted on Apr 23, 2013 at 12:09 PM1 comments

A (possibly) narrow-minded northeasterner visits Kentucky

Lexington Ky.

Yes, it's (possibly) true. Many who like me have lived more or less our whole lives in the large cities of the Northeast feel we are sophisticated and global, but sometimes we may know and understand London, Paris, or even Beijing better than we understand parts of our own country outside the coasts.

I have been reminded of this inconvenient truth the last few days visiting the Martin School (public administration and public policy program) at the University of Kentucky, in Lexington. I realized that this is only the second time I have ever visited Kentucky at all –- I was in Louisville once around 25 years ago to look at the GE Appliances customer call center -– and that my knowledge of Kentucky culture or traditions is minimal. The University of Kentucky is an important part of the city, but this is not a university town –- its population is around 300,000 (three times the population of Cambridge, Massachusetts).


Posted on Apr 19, 2013 at 12:09 PM1 comments

The contributions of immigrants -- it's not just high tech

concept art innovation

Whether it's Silicon Valley or a New York yogurt factory, the vitality and energy immigrants bring to the U.S. economy are tremendous assets.

Many, especially in the tech world, are familiar with the contributions of immigrants to high-tech business in the United States -- according to some estimates, some 40 percent of NASDAQ-listed tech firms were founded by people not born in the United States. But a fascinating and inspiring article recently appearing in the Financial Times of London about Hamdi Ulukaya, the Turkish immigrant who brought Greek-style yogurt to America, reminds us that these contributions to our country are not limited to the high-tech sphere.

Ulukaya came to the United States in 1994 to study English, started working on a farm in upstate New York, and in 2002 opened a small plant making a Turkish-style cheese. He started his yogurt company, Chobani, in 2007 when he bought a yogurt plant that had been shut down by Kraft Food. His idea was to bring a more-natural, less-sugared yogurt onto the market. (And it's worth noting that he got a $1 million loan from the Small Business Administration to buy the plant.)


Posted on Apr 17, 2013 at 12:09 PM2 comments

A media double standard?

tax form and keyboard

Like other procrastinating Americans, I have been working the last few days trying to finish up my taxes. (Although unlike many Americans, I tend to be in the "taxes are the price we pay for civilization" camp.) I use H&R Block software to do my taxes, and as I was checking the 1040 that emerged from my efforts to answer the various questions the software prompts, I noticed something strange.

I own a number of stocks in foreign companies, where the government of the country deducts local income taxes on the company's stock dividends. In such cases, U.S. tax law allows taxpayers to take a tax credit corresponding to the taxes deducted by the foreign government. So, for example, if the foreign government deducts $100 in taxes, the taxpayer can take a $100 credit on his or her own taxes. (The taxpayer reports the dividend payment as income and pays U.S. taxes on it.)


Posted on Apr 11, 2013 at 12:09 PM5 comments

Behavioral approaches to contract negotiations

the brain

A course title – with the word NEW! emblazoned in capital letters and orange type (everything else in the brochure was blue and black) – appeared in a flyer I recently got in the mail from Federal Publications Seminars.

The flyer was advertising a four-day training conference on government contracting, and the flashy course title caught my eye. Amidst traditional-sounding training sessions, with titles such as "A Practical Guide to the Incurred Cost Submission" and "Rights in Technical Data and Computer Software," the NEW! course was called, "Behavioral Aspects of Government Contract Negotiations."

The instructor is Joe Mason, a technical guy working for a Colorado-based government contractor who also teaches government contract negotiations at a local university and proposed this course to the seminar company last year. After beta testing it last year with only six attendees, this year 29 have already signed up, with the training vendor expecting 40 attendees when the 12-hour, 2-day session is delivered in May.


Posted on Apr 09, 2013 at 12:09 PM3 comments

Reminder: Corporate IT projects can also crash and burn

annual report

As my blog readers who own stock are probably aware, this is corporate annual report season. My mailbox has been filled with thick annual reports, 10-K statements, and notices of annual meetings. (I still get this stuff in hard copy.)

Reading one of these annual reports on a smallish-sized company that will remain nameless, I saw, buried on page 17 under the rubric "Other," the following disclosure:

"On February 7, 2013 the Board of Directors of the Company approved a change in the Company's IT software and systems strategy. The Company changed its IT... strategy from a previous project, involving an ERP reimplementation, to a project involving an ERP upgrade and some additional applications software. ... This new approach is expected to be completed by the Company, at a lower cost, in a shorter time frame, and with less overall business risk. The Company determined that continuing with the original project would result in increases in estimated costs and a significant extension in the time expected to complete the project.


Posted on Apr 02, 2013 at 12:09 PM1 comments

China vignettes: Techies in politics, Starbucks saturation and panda porn

Panda at the National Zoo

A pastiche of vignettes from my latest trip to China:

1) China Daily ran a story called "Web bosses go into politics" about Internet entrepreneurs who had become delegates to recent meetings of China's legislature (the National People's Congress) and another non-legislative body that discusses various issues facing society, both of which meet for a few weeks each year. Superficially this might seem like American IT entrepreneurs becoming involved in politics either to promote an industry-related IT agenda (e.g. more visas for tech workers) or because they believe in a cause such as gay marriage. However, I'm suspecting that what's behind this entrepreneurial entry into politics is more a recognition of the need to have government connections and government blessings if one is to succeed in business, even private business. To the extent this is what is going on, it may be a pessimistic sign about the high-tech industry in China, with entrepreneurs succeeding based on connections more than the quality of what they do.


Posted on Mar 27, 2013 at 12:09 PM0 comments

Stirrings of freedom rustle in China

china flag

Pluralism, and with it, freedom of expression, seems to be on the rise in China. (Stock image)

I have written in past blog posts that anybody who thinks China is a semi-totalitarian society where anything but official opinions are suppressed does not understand the country's growing pluralism.

True, it is something of a fine art to figure out what is allowed and what isn't, but I think most Americans would be surprised at the range of publicly expressed opinions. The pluralism has been dramatically increased by social media, which are creating a small revolution in Chinese society and politics through the spread of "microblogs" (weibo) that are filled with non-official information.

As I mentioned in my recent blog post from Hong Kong, anger at unsafe food and unsafe products has been rising in China. (Indeed, the recently concluded session of China's National People's Congress, the country's quasi-legislature, approved an upgrading of the status of the food safety regulatory agency.) Observers have noted that CCTV, the government TV broadcaster, along with some media, frequently emphasize food or product safety issues involving foreign multinationals (such as McDonald's, KFC, the Japanese noodle chain Ajisen, and Walmart), though these firms' products are certainly much safer than those produced by many Chinese companies.


Posted on Mar 22, 2013 at 12:09 PM1 comments

China's problems spill over into Hong Kong

Hong Kong

Hong Kong (Wikimedia photo)

Since 1997, Hong Kong has been part of China. One can see the acceptance of this in the terminology used by the Chinese media. For example, in an article about the new Chinese government cabinet, the South China Morning Post referred to the "nation's" new cabinet. The same newspaper referred to Hong Kong's chief executive visiting the "capital" in reporting on his trip to Beijing. The Chinese flag flies in Hong Kong, higher than Hong Kong's own local flag, which features a stylized five-petal orchid flower on a red background. The Chinese government, not Hong Kongers, designed and adopted this flag.

However, there are some big buts...

One thing I have noticed during this visit to Hong Kong is that so few flags are on display – far fewer hotels or buildings feature flags than is the case in China itself (or in the flag-waving United States). It almost seems that rather than displaying the Chinese flags, many just choose to show no flag at all.


Posted on Mar 19, 2013 at 12:09 PM0 comments

Could Hong Kong's subway provide sequestration inspiration?

MTR car

Hong Kong's public rail system is rare in that it's a money-maker. Steve Kelman explains how. (Wikimedia photo)

While visiting Hong Kong for a conference, I had a chance to have lunch with a former colleague, Jay Walder, who is now the CEO of the Hong Kong subway system MTR. To my surprise, he told me about a unique business model for the Hong Kong subway that might – like the idea of “social impact bonds” I discussed in my last blog post – have some implications in terms of creative ways to fund government activities in tight times.

Everybody knows that mass transit systems lose money, often a lot of money.Indeed, at the federal level, the Urban Mass Transit Administration has traditionally financed some of these losses. However, mass transit typically raises property values, especially in areas near stations, because having mass transit nearby is attractive to some people, and can also be a good location for retail outlets. (When the subway was extended in Cambridge a number of years ago, neighborhoods near new stations experienced a renaissance.)


Posted on Mar 14, 2013 at 12:09 PM0 comments

Could an idea imported from Britain help feds through tight financial times?

Jeff Liebman

Harvard Professor Jeffrey Liebman says "social impact bonds" are actually strict performance-based contracts with a twist.

My colleague Jeff Liebman – a Kennedy School economist who had a senior position in the Office of Management and Budget for the first few years of the Obama administration – gave an interesting faculty seminar recently on work he has been doing on what are called (somewhat misleadingly in his view) "social impact bonds." This idea originated in the United Kingdom and has begun to spread to state governments in the US. I am wondering whether it conceivably might have some applicability in the federal government.

As Jeff pointed out in his presentation, "social impact bonds" are actually strict performance-based contracts with a twist. A contractor signs up for some performance objective over a period of years. If they achieve the performance objective, they are paid at a rate that will provide them a decent, but not huge, return on their investment. If they don’t achieve the objective, they are not paid.


Posted on Mar 12, 2013 at 12:09 PM3 comments

Good customer service ideas can be free

TSA agent

An encounter with a helpful TSA agent -- though not this unidentified one -- inspired some thoughts on customer service for Steve Kelman. (Stock photo by Carolina K. Smith MD)

I had a great customer service experience with the Transportation Security Administration at Logan Airport in Boston recently. While I was going through my ticket and driver’s license check, the screener said to me, "Don’t forget about renewing your license – Massachusetts doesn’t send reminders." (My license expires in a few months.) I didn’t know Massachusetts doesn’t send reminders, so I’ve now put it on my calendar to make sure I take care of it in time.

I tell this story for several reasons. First, I want to acknowledge the good customer service from the oft-reviled TSA. My own experience as a very frequent traveler is that this is far, far closer to the norm than the stories about grannies or three-year olds getting aggressively searched that the public often hears. Second, I want to point out that this experience took place the very day that sequestration took effect. Here was an employee who did not allow herself to wallow in a sequestration funk, but instead continued to serve the public in a way that went beyond her job description. This should be a model for how civil servants in general react to sequestration, in my view – try to avoid getting into a passive victim mode.


Posted on Mar 05, 2013 at 12:09 PM1 comments

Making the best of sequestration

man planning layoffs

In order to maintain agency work during sequestration, managers need to be empowered to deal with poor performing employees, Steve Kelman writes. (Stock image)

Over the past few weeks, I have periodically felt slightly weird in writing my blog posts. Here I was continuing to write my normal posts about how to improve organizational performance and management, as if the situation in agencies was just proceeding as normal, while many of my readers were focused on the possibility of furloughs and the other disruptions of an increasingly certain sequestration.

So the first thing I want to do in this post is to say to my readers in and around government that, as one taxpayer, I am grateful for what you do and saddened that you are about to be run over by a rogue bus. As I say to my executive education classes, there is no group for whom the gap between what people are actually achieving and accomplishing, and what folks out there think you are achieving and accomplishing, is so great as for most U.S. civil servants. I’m not sure what my sympathy will buy – especially for those employees who really can’t afford furlough-induced pay cuts. But I want to express it anyway.


Posted on Feb 28, 2013 at 12:09 PM4 comments

Yahoo bans telework. What do you think?

teleworker at laundromat

On Feb. 26, the New York Times reported in a front-page story that the new Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer had issued a memo rescinding the company’s policy on telework (which the article quaintly calls “telecommuting”) and ordering workers back to the office. Given the expansion of telework in the federal government, and the suggestion that this is a wave of the future that only trogdolyte managers resist, the story is an interesting one.

What is going on?

The basic story behind Yahoo’s decision is that the company believes that having workers interact with each other face to face promotes both collaboration and innovation, two features Yahoo wants to see in its workplace as the company tries to turn itself around. (The article notes that the new Yahoo policy is simply a more extreme version of a Google company policy that discourages telework.)


Posted on Feb 27, 2013 at 12:09 PM7 comments

The larger message in social media metrics

Justin Herman

Justin Herman, new media manager at the GSA’s Center for Excellence in Digital Government, shown speaking at GSA's Social Media Week in February. (FCW photo by Frank Konkel)

FCW reporter Frank Konkel wrote an interesting article on on efforts growing out of a working group inside the General Services Administration to develop performance measures for government social media sites.

I found the article fascinating from two perspectives. First, the metrics themselves look sensible. For example, they suggest tracking "conversions" (when people click through from the post to additional linked content), "loyalty" (when first-time visitors return), and "customer service" (timeliness in responding to requests). I am guessing many of these metrics grow out of private-sector practice in tracking social media effectiveness; and I say this as a kudos for learning from others, not a knock for lack of originality. There are too many home-grown approaches in government to issues that have perfectly good private-sector counterparts. I am also hoping that the data to track many of the metrics presented is generated either free or at very low cost.


Posted on Feb 22, 2013 at 12:09 PM1 comments

Coming soon: The university of the internet

computer and books

At a recent Kennedy School faculty meeting, our dean gave a report on a meeting he had attended with other senior university administrators from the United States and abroad. The topic that attracted the most interest in the discussion was the spread of online university education via so-called “massive open online courses” (MOOCs). These are online lectures, so far mostly but not exclusively in the sciences, given by professors who are very talented as teachers. Most are open for viewing for free, but in some cases one can pay a fee in order to take an exam and get course credit. (Here’s a link to the Wikipedia entry on MOOCs.)

The dean's basic point was that administrators agree the move towards MOOCs is going much faster than anyone expected, and an upheaval in higher education may be around the corner. Universities are, the view seems to be, about to be swept up in technology-induced change in a way that first became familiar when MCI long distance challenged the old AT&T, and that we have seen more recently with newspapers and music. Rather than trying to fight this, Harvard and MIT have joined to form EdX to promote and develop MOOC’s.


Posted on Feb 20, 2013 at 12:09 PM1 comments

How measurement motivates, part 2

measurement tool

In my last blog post, I noted that the idea of using performance measures as a way to motivate employees to meet challenging goals is the most underused performance-improvement tool federal managers have. I promised I would share some further research findings. This topic has been well researched by scholars (led by Gary Latham of the University of Toronto and Ed Locke of the University of Maryland).

So here goes:

1) Although attaching a monetary award to achievement of a goal motivates greater improvements in performance, the motivating role of a challenging goal occurs even without monetary award. This is particularly relevant in government, where the ability to give such contingent monetary rewards is often lacking.


Posted on Feb 15, 2013 at 12:09 PM1 comments

How measurement motivates

men talking

When I teach about the use of performance measurement to improve government performance, one of the central ways I suggest managers and leaders use the metrics is through their ability to motivate employees to work toward a goal.

That challenging goals motivate people to perform better has been supported in hundreds of research studies. An article a number of years ago in the Academy of Management Executive showed that it's tied for the best-established research finding in the human resources literature.

Probably the most dramatic example in the history of organizations of the use of a stretch goal to motivate better organizational performance comes from government – John F. Kennedy’s 1961 speech establishing the goal of getting people to the moon and safely back, to be achieved within a decade. When Kennedy made the speech, we had launched an astronaut 115 miles above the Earth. Going to the moon meant sending astronauts 270,000 miles from home, and then bringing them back the same distance.


Posted on Feb 13, 2013 at 12:09 PM2 comments

How conformists can spark creativity

Steve Kelman

In a number of columns I've written over the years, I have criticized the idea held by many non-academics that scholarly research in general — and research on organizations and management in particular — merely establishes the obvious.

I came across a paper recently in the Academy of Management Journal — the leading outlet for scholarly empirical research on organizational behavior — that would certainly fit into the category of research that does not establish the obvious.

The finding? A team's ability to innovate is enhanced by having some team members who are conformists. The paper, titled "The Effect of Conformists and Attentive-to-Detail Members on Team Innovation: Reconciling the Innovation Paradox," was written by Ella Miron-Spektor, an organizational psychologist at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, and two Israeli colleagues. It examines work teams at a large Israeli defense company — so it's not lab research using college undergrads — that are charged with developing advanced technologies in areas such as microelectronics and communications.


Posted on Feb 08, 2013 at 12:09 PM2 comments

Welcome back, FAR 13.5

FAR image GSA

Simplified acquisition procedures for smaller purchases have returned to the contracting officer's toolbox. (GSA image)

One of the products of the procurement reform efforts of the 1990's was regulatory changes to streamline procedures for smaller buys and contracts for commercial items. There were two basic philosophies behind these changes:

1)  to reduce requirements on the government in awarding these contracts, speeding up the notoriously slow government procurement process;

2)  to reduce government-unique requirements for contractors, mainly to encourage commercial companies, particularly smaller firms with cutting-edge technologies, to do business with the government.

The major regulatory products of this effort were changes to Part 12 of the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) – rules for buying commercial items – and to Part 13 – rules for smaller purchases under $150,000 in value.


Posted on Feb 05, 2013 at 12:09 PM0 comments

Hopes and fears: China edition

Beijing air pollution - photo by Alastair Thornton|@AThorntonChina

As this recent daytime photo shows, Beijing air pollution has reached extreme levels. (photo by Alastair Thornton)

During the inauguration, I blogged about the scenarios, both hopeful and pessimistic, that a number of Democratic friends attending the events had sketched for the next four years. One blog reader noted in a response that China too has new leadership -- although they are beginning a ten-year term, unmarred by any election in between -- and suggested I ask some Chinese about their hopes and worries the next time I was in China.

As luck would have it, I was about to speak to a group of Chinese university students under the auspices of the China Future Leaders program. So I did.


Posted on Jan 31, 2013 at 12:09 PM1 comments

Soup, a sandwich and deficit reduction

donation box

I recently saw a fascinating article in The Boston Globe that caught my eye, both on its own terms and in terms of possible implications for government.

The article was about the sandwich chain Panera Bread establishing a new "Panera Cares Café" in downtown Boston. The café, owned by the Panera Bread Foundation, looks like any other Panera Bread outlet and has the same menu. However, it has no cash registers. Instead, the menu shows suggested prices for each item. People who can afford it are asked to put that amount or more into collection baskets in the restaurant; those who cannot may eat for free or for whatever amount they feel they can pay. Panera is only asking/hoping that the café will cover its costs; there is no expectation that the outlet will make a profit for the company.


Posted on Jan 29, 2013 at 12:09 PM8 comments

Are procurement contests entering the IT mainstream?

businesspeople running track

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.)


Posted on Jan 24, 2013 at 12:09 PM0 comments

After the inauguration, some forecasts for the next four years

crowd at inauguaration 2013

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.


Posted on Jan 22, 2013 at 12:09 PM3 comments

In Memoriam: Richard Hackman, a scholar who cared about government

Richard Hackman

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.


Posted on Jan 15, 2013 at 12:09 PM0 comments

The antisocial network?

Smartphone in hand

Expect to see today's youth thumbing buttons on this device at any time, but almost never speaking into it. (Stock image)

Will this new generation of young people, who eschew telephone conversation in favor of texts, social media and the Internet, change as they enter the workforce?  Or will they simply change professional communication as we know it?

I somewhat addressed this question last August when I discussed my decision to transition from teaching using only words to a method that includes a significant visual component -- namely, PowerPoint slides.

Everyone over a certain age has noticed how talking over the telephone – as opposed to texting – is becoming rarer and rarer. When I was in the government 15 years ago, I made and received probably 20 calls a day. Now I probably make and receive 20 calls in two weeks (and, because I’m old-fashioned, most of those are ones I make, not ones I get.)


Posted on Jan 11, 2013 at 12:09 PM3 comments

Innovation at a 95-percent discount

CTO Todd Park

U.S. CTO Todd Park oversees and champions the Presidential Innovation Fellows program.

In a recent conversation with a senior administration official, I was told about an accomplishment of a program started last August called the Presidential Innovation Fellows. This effort, run out of the office U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park, brings about 20 smart people from the private sector to work in the government for a 6-month stint to jump-start a specific innovation initiative in cooperation with an agency. (FCW previously covered the program here.)

One of these innovation fellows, whose normal job involves website design, has been working on an initiative called RFP-EZ, which is an application to help companies who have never done business with the government before – especially startups with innovative solutions to government problems – walk step by step through the federal procurement process.


Posted on Jan 08, 2013 at 12:09 PM4 comments

China faces the Western New Year

Traffic in Beijing

Traffic in Chinese cities (this picture is from Beijing) is either jammed or reckless at any given time, Steve Kelman reports. (Wikipedia photo)

Chinese New Year (chun jie or “spring festival”) is probably the biggest holiday of the year in China, with people getting from one to two weeks off work, and a mass migration from the big cities back to hometowns all over China.  But Western New Year is also an official holiday in China, with people getting January 1 to 3 off from work as well.

China faces the New Year with tensions and challenges, and with new leadership, headed by Xi Jinping, China’s first “princeling” – child of a revolutionary hero -- ruler.  (A Chinese friend pointed out to me that with the recent elections in Japan and Korea won by children of previous rulers, the major countries in Asia – China, Japan, South Korea, and North Korea – are all ruled by “dynasties.”)


Posted on Jan 02, 2013 at 12:09 PM3 comments

China wishes a Merry Christmas

china christmas

Beijing is in full Christmas mode. The Christmas trees, Santa Clauses, and “Merry Christmas” signs are not just in Western hotels like the Westin where I am staying. (By the way, no “Happy Holidays” here; American traditionalists can feel at home.) At the Beijing Airport, there is a huge Christmas tree in the main terminal, and I heard “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” in English, over the loudspeakers.

Christmas trees abound outside shopping malls, restaurants, and some office buildings. At two restaurants where I was taken for dinner, the employees were all wearing Santa hats. The two major Christmas activities are going out with friends to dinner and exchanging presents, and the holiday is particularly popular among the young. Since the biggest holiday in China, the week-long Chinese New Year festival (this year in early February), pretty much requires people to go visit their families in their home towns, people like Christmas as a chance to socialize with friends.


Posted on Dec 23, 2012 at 12:09 PM3 comments

Some cultural observations in Mexico

Enrique Pena Nieto

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, shown during a meeting with President Barack Obama. (White House photo)

This has been a fascinating trip, and, beneath our preoccupations as Americans with drug violence and immigration, this is a fascinating society.

Of many observations, I offer here two historical ones and two about current issues.

I am really struck by the huge difference in the relationship between European colonizers (Spanish) and native peoples in Mexico versus the US. In Mexican high school history books, the Spanish settlement is referred to as The Conquest (La Conquista), and the history of the period is written from the Native people point of view. Why the enormous difference with the US?  First, there were rather few Spanish settlers, and they came mostly to plunder or search for gold. They employed the natives, in semi-slave conditions, in mines and on enormous farms.


Posted on Dec 18, 2012 at 12:09 PM1 comments

First impressions of Mexico

Night view of Monterrey

Monterrey, Mexico, has a reputation for drug-related violent crime, but also an active nighttime social scene, reports Steve Kelman. (Photo: Wikipedia

Except for a half-day in Tijuana (which was part of a visit to San Diego) and a week in Cancun – neither of which really counts as spending time there -- I have never truly visited Mexico. However, I agreed recently to serve as faculty chair for an executive education program at the Harvard Kennedy School for senior Mexican career government employees.

The deciding factor, although I speak no Spanish and know little about the country, was that it would give me the opportunity to understand better this important country so close to and so closely linked (through trade and immigration) to the United States. I’ve been busily reading books about Mexico for the last six weeks, and now I have come for a brief visit, to talk with some local experts and take in a little of a feel for the country.


Posted on Dec 14, 2012 at 12:09 PM0 comments

Harnessing the energy of youth for better government

US Cyber Challenge logo

Aliya Sternstein recently wrote an interesting article in GovExec on how some associations with close ties to the government, such as the Air Force Association and the independent U.S. Cyber Challenge (led by former Federal CIO Karen Evans), were setting up various contests and training programs to involve young people in improving skills as cybersecurity defenders. The U.S. Cyber Challenge has both training and a contest whose winners can get scholarships to study cybersecurity. These and other organizations set up “hackathons” where young people compete with one another to defend targets against hacking.

There are obviously some potential concerns — of which the organizers are aware and which the article also discusses — that young people who learn cybersecurity defense through these kinds of programs will use their improved skills to become cyberattackers themselves. (Indeed, two participants in one of the programs were arrested in 2011 for hacking into Sony Pictures Entertainment.)


Posted on Dec 11, 2012 at 9:03 AM0 comments

'If this were government it would be a news story'

Magnifying glass

The media serves an important role in government oversight, argues Steve Kelman.

Last weekend in Washington, I went with my wife and some friends to see Lincoln.  The Saturday night scene at the AMC theater near Mazza Galleria was total chaos. There were several lines weaving in and out of each other, with no clear indication (such as ropes or signs) of which line was for picking up pre-purchased tickets, which for buying new tickets, and which for entering the cinema. No employee was visible to organize any of these lines or explain what was going on. There was no demarcation between the ticket/entry lines and the place for people leaving a show to exit through the lobby, so departing customers (of whom there were a significant number) had to somehow break through the various ticket customer lines.


Posted on Dec 06, 2012 at 12:09 PM3 comments

Private-sector corporate customers give their IT vendors low marks as strategic partners

Steve Kelman

IT vendors in the federal marketplace often express a wish for a greater strategic partnership with the government customers, and lament the features of the federal marketplace that make this more difficult.

The desire to get greater value from a more strategic, trusting relationship is a good one, and there are frustrating features of the government environment -- particularly the nature of media coverage and some of the "oversight" of the system -- that do make these relationships more difficult.

However, a recent survey among corporate CIOs, published in CIO magazine -- and titled "CIOs Give Vendors Low Marks" -- suggests that the problem may not just be the government environment and just government customers. Vendors also need to improve their game.


Posted on Nov 30, 2012 at 12:09 PM0 comments

Bringing the "book group" idea to the world of charitable giving

Steve Kelman

With a season of giving approaching, I want to share a version of an idea I heard recently at a dinner for a charitable cause that seems to me to be a nice mixture of an opportunity to give, to learn and to share good times with good friends.

My host at the dinner, and one of my tablemates, are working together to establish an organization aimed at women with considerable financial resources but limited experience with philanthropy. (Readers without "considerable financial resources" -- please read on, I am going to adapt their idea to people with somewhat less money to give!) Their idea is to have, say, 100 women each give into a pot a fixed sum of money, say $5,000. This would give the group total resources of $500,000. The group would decide in advance that these funds would be dispersed in grants of $50,000 or $100,000 each to a limited number of charitable organizations, based on votes by group members. The group would then solicit various charitable organizations of its choice to apply for these grants, in paper and/or with in-person presentations.


Posted on Nov 27, 2012 at 9:03 AM2 comments

Going international

world map

I have introduced two classes this year in my introductory course on management and leadership for our master’s students at the Kennedy School. They pertain to the challenges of managing teams that are from several countries and native languages, and that work in virtual (dispersed) settings rather than face-to-face.

In one class, we do a computer-based simulation, using real-time chat, of a dispersed team trying to communicate with each other in English when some members of the team have English as a native language and others don’t. In the other class, we discuss a situation where a four-nation 24-7 IT support team for multinational corporations has run into problems of inter-country hostility and finger-pointing about problems.

In connection with the second class, I did a class poll, and the results were, to me, really amazing.


Posted on Nov 14, 2012 at 12:09 PM3 comments

Improving the inspector general

Magnifying glass

With aggregated budgets of about $2 billion and a total of 12,000 employees, the Offices of the Inspector General (IGs) are not a tiny presence in government. Their amazing ability to attract media attention for various lurid exposes (even when, as is typical, on closer inspection by knowledgeable people there is less there than meets the eye) gives them influence in Washington even beyond their budgets and numbers.

IG’s certainly do good work, particularly on the criminal and fraud-detection side. Their audits of wasteful spending – the bread and butter of their media coverage – are a mixed bag, sometimes on-target and sometimes merely sensationalistic.  Many of their other audits are basically reports on agency compliance with various rules. These are again very much a mixed bag – partly, the rule violations are often trivial, and partly, obeying the rules is typically only a small part of what it means to have a good, effective program.


Posted on Nov 09, 2012 at 12:09 PM1 comments

Voting as an irrational act

I Voted sticker

Photo by √oхέƒx™ on Flickr.
Used by Creative Commons license.

I needed to vote early this morning, because I’m teaching and then immediately leaving for Washington. I arrived at my small polling station in Concord, Mass., at 6:45 am, fifteen minutes before the polls opened, and there were already about 20 people in line ahead of me. I was able to vote quickly – done by 7:10 a.m. – and when I left the polling place, there were maybe 40 people waiting in line. (My younger daughter emailed me a little later in the morning that she had been waiting in line for an hour.) However, this is of course modest compared with the stories of people waiting 6 to 8 hours in line to vote early in Florida, for example. And I have already seen Facebook posts this morning about people waiting an hour in line or more.


Posted on Nov 06, 2012 at 12:09 PM4 comments

Lessons about managing teams

Steve Kelman

I have expanded this year the material on managing teams for my introductory management course for Kennedy School master’s students. I introduced two classes on team management two years ago, expanded it last year to three and now have raised it to five.

This is partly because the subject has a mixture of good available in-class experiential exercises and a rich scholarly literature, a nice mixture for a course. But it is mainly because teams, often cross-functional teams, are becoming more and more important for making increasingly complex organizational decisions or producing organizational products and services.

We started the five classes with an in-class exercise called Desert Survival, set up by a DVD describing a group of travelers whose light plane crashes in the Sonora Desert in Arizona and who must figure out the relative importance of various of the items they have available at the crash site for surviving in the desert. Students first solve the problem individuals and are then divided into teams of five to make the rankings as a group. Individual student and team answers are then compared with the prioritization provided by an expert on surviving in the desert.


Posted on Nov 01, 2012 at 12:09 PM1 comments

Accountability vs. performance

There are few words more praised in discussions about government than the word “accountability.”  Everybody is for it, nobody thinks we have enough of it. Public discussions about using performance measurement in government are commonly expressed as efforts to increase accountability; for example, the school testing movement is typically referred to as “school accountability .”

I think we need to be clear, however, about a tension between the “accountability” that everyone rushes to support and the underlying effort to improve government performance, which is supposedly one – and presumably the most important – purpose of the exercise in the first place. A recent report by Matthew Weigelt on, discussing a panel discussion on the topic of stretch goals at George Washington University, illustrates one aspect of the tension.

Fundamentally, the tension comes from the fact that the idea of accountability – where one is trying to perform well in order to please external actors – has a fundamentally punitive meaning. The popular phrase, “Where’s the accountability” is actually just a (slightly) nice way to say,  “Who are we going to fire or send to jail?”


Posted on Oct 24, 2012 at 12:09 PM3 comments

Changing minds on GSA

In my last blog post, I discussed preparing a class in my introductory management and leadership course for Kennedy School master’s students on the implications of the GSA conference scandal from last spring for how government is organized and managed – in particular how problems like this, and the way the media report them, places a premium in government management on control. (A student from GSA in an executive education program post-scandal reported needing to get 10 signoffs on travel expenses to come, even after participation in the program had been approved.)

I started the class with two quick polls. First I asked those students who had followed the scandal when it broke last spring what their initial reaction had been, with the three alternatives being:

  1. This is terrible, and it’s typical for how government agencies behave;
  2. This is terrible, but it’s not typical for how government agencies behave;
  3. The media is presenting this as a much bigger problem than it really is.

I then gave them the same three alternatives for their views as of the start of the class, after taking their management course so far this semester and reading the background materials on the scandal (the IG report, television coverage, Martha Johnson’s resignation, some congressional testimony, and some “leaked” conference videos from Huffington Post).

The responses were interesting. Their reactions from last spring were:

  • 21 percent terrible and typical;
  • 61 percent terrible but not typical;
  • 18 percent media exaggerating the problem.

After taking part of the management course and reading the material, their opinions had evolved somewhat, though not dramatically:

  • 13 percent terrible and typical;
  • 69 percent terrible but not typical;
  • 19 percent media exaggeration.

To put it mildly, I make no claim that these views – especially the initial reactions from last spring – are representative of the American people. But, especially given that we see a problem of skepticism about government among our students that parallels, although at a much lower level, currents in society as a whole, it was interesting to me that only 20 percent of our students had thought these events were terrible and typical, which to me is good news.

I had the students talk among themselves about the poll results, putting one student from the media-exaggeration camp into each group, and then had the groups brief the whole class. The points the advocates of media exaggeration made that their fellow students found the most convincing were that this involved a tiny amount of money in the government’s budget, and that members of Congress who can’t agree on a deficit reduction deal should be the last to complain about waste at GSA.

We talked about media coverage. I showed them the Google hits I mentioned in my previous blog – that this scandal had gotten infinitely more media attention than the substantive issue GSA head Martha Johnson was spending her time on. One student stated that this was how the media covered business too. I noted that especially in recent years there has been far more critical and hard-hitting coverage of business, but the media still paid significant attention to reporting about quarterly earnings reports, new products, and the substance of the business, in a way that gets done less for government agencies. A student who had been a journalist argued that the media behaved this way because this was what people wanted to read or see – this was being driven by media consumers more than anything.

Finally I put this scandal into the context of what we had been studying about rules vs. empowering employees in the design of government organizations. This kind of environment – and also, as a student had noted in the previous class, the higher ethical standard to which government is held – produces a situation where control becomes a very large element of managing government organizations, and where rules and procedures are used to increase control even if they lower the ability to shine and do a good job.

How to manage in this environment, I asked the students?  A number of students were enamored of a reading I gave them by Robert Simons, writing 15 years ago in the Harvard Business Review about “management control in an age of empowerment.” Rules should set boundaries of the unethical and unacceptable, and tell people they must not go outside those boundaries, Simons argues. But inside the boundaries, give people as much room as possible. That is perhaps the wisest lesson to draw from a sad situation.

Posted on Oct 19, 2012 at 12:09 PM0 comments

The GSA scandal as a teaching tool

 A year ago, before the GSA conference scandal broke out, we introduced a new case in our introductory management and leadership course at the Kennedy School, written about the decision by the new GSA administrator, Martha Johnson, to emphasize “zero environmental footprint” as her central strategic goal. The aim of the case was to discuss whether it was a good idea to focus on a goal somewhat outside GSA’s traditional mission, and also to discuss whether Johnson should have used more of a planning process before selecting the goal. In the case, Johnson was quoted as saying: “I didn’t want to spend weeks in a conference center, talking about our mission and our goals and so on.… I was trying to give people relief from forever-and-away planning, sifting, strategizing, talking, meeting, and so on, because GSA is an organization of action, and it really simply needs a couple of big channels to work in, and then everybody will take off.”

Last year – though I actually tried to nudge them in a more questioning direction – the vast majority of the students were really enamored of what Johnson had done.


Posted on Oct 17, 2012 at 12:09 PM3 comments

Good directions for strategic sourcing

FCW’s Matthew Weigelt “obtained” (i.e. somebody leaked to him) a copy of a draft report from the Government Accountability Office about strategic sourcing, which he wrote about on, with a follow-up here.

Strategic sourcing – taking advantage of an organization’s combined buying power to get better prices and service from vendors than would be obtainable by each part of the organization buying on its own – is sort of Procurement 101, certainly in the private sector, where it is a major way that purchasing organizations justify their existence in corporate America. The basic idea is no more complicated than the observation that you pay a lower price per unit when you buy the giant economy size than when you buy single-serving containers. I preached this as far back as when I was the Office of Federal Procurement Policy Administrator 15 years ago.


Posted on Oct 12, 2012 at 12:09 PM3 comments

Taking the social-media pulse of Chinese students

Faithful blog readers will know that two or three times a year, I meet with a group of Chinese university students who are visiting the US for a few weeks with a program called China Future Leaders. I speak with them about my family (to illustrate the role of immigration in American society), about Harvard (including a topic that interests almost all of them, applying to a university in the US), and about current issues in US-Chinese relations. I also always take the opportunity of their visit to ask them some questions.

This time I mostly asked them about their use of weibo, literally “micro-blogs.” As you may be aware, Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube are all blocked in China, though most Western sites (including the New York Times, Washington Post, and this blog) are available. Each of these forms of social media, though, has a Chinese counterpart. The social medium with the most social importance in China is the Twitter-knockoff Sina Weibo (though it has some much smaller competitors with a similar format).


Posted on Oct 04, 2012 at 12:09 PM2 comments

Forward with the dialogue on agile development

I want to thank the blog readers who took the time to engage in a dialogue on blog post I wrote first about agile development in general and then about contracting for agile development in particular. This was a conversation at its best, long on dialogue, substance, and listening, short on vitriol and name-calling. (If only American politics could be like this…) I also want especially to thank Mark Schwartz, the Citizenship and Immigration Services CIO about whom I wrote, for joining in the dialogue and responding to comments.

There are two issues I see coming out of the dialogue that I think continue to need discussion: They are "requirements” and “integration.”

On requirements: As a person coming out of contracting, I agree that the demand for “all requirements up front” is unrealistic, time-consuming, and ultimately fruitless since requirements will inevitably change over the life of a big project. It also fosters lengthy project development cycles to attain all these requirements, a system that has not worked well for agencies or taxpayers. So I have no problem with getting away from that.


Posted on Oct 02, 2012 at 12:09 PM19 comments

Using startups brings rewards -- and risks

The new issue of CIO magazine, a trade journal oriented mostly to private-sector CIO’s, has a fascinating article by Stephanie Overby in the new issue, called “The Risks and Rewards of Using Startups.”  This is an issue government IT managers face as well, with the added element of pressure to meet small business goals and a perception by some small-business advocates of government bias against small firms.

The CIO article is long and detailed, and, as its title suggests, presents a very balanced picture of upsides and downsides .And just about all the upsides and downsides apply to government as well.

The upsides of dealing with startups are three: price, innovativeness, and responsiveness.

The article is pretty up-front in noting that a clear advantage of dealing with startups is that they are typically considerably cheaper than larger, established firms .This is both because their costs are likely to be lower (less overhead, for example) and because they provide advantageous pricing to get their foot in the door and show what they can do. In today’s federal budget environment, that is no small advantage, and it should definitely be something very much on the government’s mind .The problem in a government context is that small startups sometimes expect to be able to charge the same prices as their big competitors, despite the challenges (noted below) of working with them .That doesn’t add up .Government should expect to get services from these firms at a lower cost, and startups should expect to charge the government ultra-competitive prices.


Posted on Sep 27, 2012 at 12:09 PM0 comments

Unraveling the agile development knot

In my recent conversation with Mark Schwartz, CIO of Citizenship and Immigration Services, about transitioning the federal government to agile development, we also spoke about some issues for agile contracting.  It was an interesting conversation, with what I would call some good news and two challenges.

Mark is an advocate of using a multiple-award task order contact framework for contracting for agile development modules, with competition among a small group of contract holders for each module.  He agrees with the view that technical developments involving the underlying architecture for these projects makes it more possible than before to do individual agile development modules as “bolt ons” to the architecture, which undermines the traditional approach that says that you need one contractor for these projects because of the difficulty of integration.  He believes that the government should itself often be responsible for developing the architecture and for any integration issues, though when I said this might better be left in the hands of an architecture/integration contractor most of the time, he wasn’t dogmatic on the point.


Posted on Sep 20, 2012 at 12:09 PM13 comments

The Navy's Elliott Branch: Getting a good deal for government.

Every year for the last decade – this is the tenth anniversary – the Partnership for Public Service has given annual awards for outstanding, results-oriented achievements by career civil servants. The award is officially called the “Service to America Medal,” unofficially known as the “Sammies.”

The nickname isn't just a play on the acronym of the formal name or a reference to the Oscars. It also invokes the name of Samuel J. Heyman, the deceased original founder and benefactor of the Partnership for Public Service.

Heyman, in whose honor the awards are given, had an amazing story to tell: a billionaire real estate developer and businessman, he always said his best job ever was as a junior attorney right out of law school for the Department of Justice. He left that job because his father had died, and Heyman took over the family business.


Posted on Sep 18, 2012 at 12:09 PM1 comments

Agile development: A case in point

At a recent Kennedy School executive education program, I was lucky to have a chance to meet and talk with Mark Schwartz, CIO at the Homeland Security Department's Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Mark has a great background, coming to government for the first time after a fascinating career in private-sector IT.  He studied computer science at Yale, he went to film school, dropped out, and worked first at a film production company, then in software consulting, then lived abroad for five years. After all this, he went back to school to get an MBA at Wharton, and then became CIO of a company called Intrax Cultural Exchange, which sets up different kinds of exchange programs, including au pair jobs for foreigners working in US families. 

 “Then,” he says, “I got this idea that it would be interesting to work for government. My organization brought 60,000 people a year to come to the US. Citizenship and Immigration Services receives seven million applications a year to come. DHS seemed to have a lot of problems – I thought maybe I could help.” More

Posted on Sep 12, 2012 at 12:09 PM12 comments

The greatest immigrant generation

My mom, Sylvia Kelman, died on Sept. 1, just a few weeks before her 92nd birthday. The last few years have been sad in many ways, with her health and cognition deteriorating badly. It is painful to have those last memories of her. But our whole family will cherish the memories of a very strong and devoted woman, very smart, very loving, and very caring both for family and for others in the world.

 I bring up my mom not just to remember her for herself, but because she beautifully represented one of the most amazing groups of immigrants ever to grace our country’s shores – the Eastern European Jewish immigrants who came to the US from around 1890 through 1910, fleeing poverty and anti-Semitism in their home countries. 

My mom, born in 1920, was a child of two such immigrants. Her parents had hardly any formal schooling – her dad was a garment worker, her mom ran a tiny bakery. She was able to attend university thanks to the free public New York city college system (she attended Hunter College, at that time all-women), a system that produced a generation of Nobel Prize winners and world-renowned academics.  After graduating, she went to work in the War Department during World War II, as a GS-3 (I believe) classification specialist. She raised three baby-boom children (born between 1948 and 1954), volunteered in local politics and the Parent-Teacher Association, and then returned to school to get a law degree after her children became teenagers. One of her kids is a Harvard professor, a second a Stanford professor, a third a union-side labor lawyer.


Posted on Sep 05, 2012 at 12:09 PM2 comments

Meeting the first dean of China's first business school

During my recent visit to the Jiaotong University Management School in Xi’an, China, I had a chance to meet and talk with Professor Yingluo Wang. Now in his eighties, Professor Wang has sparkling eyes and smile, and still comes every day into his spacious office, marked by traditional Chinese wood furniture and a modest number of photos of him with various Chinese luminaries. From our conversation, I learned features of the history of business school education in contemporary China that still have an impact on these schools today.

Not surprisingly, China’s business schools are a product of the country’s transition in the 1980s from Maoism and central planning into a more Western-oriented and more (though far from completely) market-oriented economy. What I hadn’t realized was how great a role the US itself had played in getting these institutions off the ground. In 1979, only one year after the Chinese government’s course reversal to a “reform and opening” policy, the government sent a delegation of professors and government officials, including Wang (at that time a professor of industrial engineering at Xi’an Jiaotong University), to the US to learn about how management was taught here.


Posted on Aug 30, 2012 at 12:09 PM2 comments

Mass consumption in China

My hotel in Xi’an China – the historic capital that is home of the terracotta warriors and where I have been giving some lectures at Xi’an Jiaotong University – is in the middle of a newly developed mall/tourism area encompassing a large swath of land not too far from downtown. (Given the size of the redeveloped area and the tendency in China to displace large numbers of people for new construction with hardly the bat of an eye, I asked what was in this area before its recent redevelopment, and was told it was “villages,” which seems slightly implausible given how urban the surrounding area is.)

The theme of the whole complex is the Tang Dynasty, with faux (though to my eyes attractive) old Chinese-style architecture, statues of ancient figures lining the middle of the widest boulevard in the area, and a Tang Dynasty theme park near the shopping areas. In all, the feel reflects the interest in China in ancient dynasties – the Tang were about a thousand years ago – rather than a modern Chinese history featuring first decline and humiliation by the West, and then the years of Communism.
The blocks of stores that dominate the area give an interesting insight into Chinese mass middle class consumption. There is no Gucci or Louis Vuitton here, though the manager at my hotel noted with some satisfaction that Xi’an’s first Rolls-Royce dealership lies next to the hotel. Instead, there is a lot of American fast food (Pizza Hut, KFC, Subway, and Dairy Queen all within 100 feet of each other), along with Japanese noodles (Ajisen) and some Chinese food as well.
I spent a while in a mid-market, Chinese brand department store outlet called Vanguard, which had a range of items such as clothing and electronics but compared to an American counterpart was more dominated by food and personal care items. Both its similarities and its differences with counterparts in the West are noteworthy. For somebody raised on images (and personal experiences, at least as a visitor) of Eastern European communism – where the arrival of a supply of over-ripe bananas could generate lines stretching a city block – the most striking similarity with US stores was the mounds of fruits and vegetables piled high and bountifully plentiful. Some of the items on display were different from those you’d see in an American supermarket, but the overall effect of abundance and prosperity was similar. Prices were about 60 percent of what they would be in the US,  though with Chinese wages, the items were more expensive relatively.
A second similarity was the dominance of Western brands – Colgate, Olay, L’Oreal – in the personal care section. I don’t suspect any of these products are actually made in the US (the packages were pretty much entirely in Chinese, and I don’t know if there are country of origin labels; I would guess a lot of these items were made in China, Thailand, or Malaysia). But Western brands were definitely holding their own. In other parts of the store I saw a huge barrel filled with Snickers bars, and a detergent section with endless variants on Tide detergent.
Perhaps the biggest difference between this store and a counterpart in the US was the large number of sales staff, several milling around in each section, not just in consumer electronics or fruits and vegetables but in personal care and packaged foods sections. There were a fairly significant number of product demonstrations going on around the store, and I was approached several times by staff, asking me if I needed help. This suggests a role in educating new consumers about what’s out there.
At the risk of appearing either naive or of embracing a crude economic determinism, I did think as I wandered through this temple to popular consumption that it was hard to imagine Americans and Chinese being different enough or hostile enough to each other ever to get into a bad fight.


Posted on Aug 28, 2012 at 12:09 PM1 comments

A clue to keep employees happier during budget-cut times

I recently attended the annual meeting of the Academy of Management, the association of professors (mostly at business schools) who study organizations. I heard an interesting paper which, although the data comes from the UK national government, is quite relevant to people thinking about how US federal employees will deal with the looming tight budget environment in government.

The authors – Tina Kiefer and Jean Hartley of the Warwick Business School, Neal Conway of Birkbeck College, and Rob Briner of the University of Bath –conducted a survey of various elements of job satisfaction, employee engagement, and how oriented the employee is to providing good service. By coincidence, in the middle of conducting the survey the new British Conservative government announced budget cuts averaging 25 percent over four years. (Remember that in Britain’s parliamentary government, when the Prime Minister announces a policy like this, it is pretty much automatically passed by the majority in Parliament, which is always the same political party or coalition as the Prime Minister.) This coincidence about the announcement allowed them to compare the attitudes of respondents who answered the survey before the budget cut announcements and afterwards, which is neat. With the announcement, they decided also to conduct a follow-up survey 6 months later asking many of the same questions, allowing some comparisons after the budget cut announcements had sunk in and begun to be implemented.


Posted on Aug 23, 2012 at 12:09 PM1 comments

Think the government is bureaucratic? Read on.

As regular readers of this blog know, one topic that I frequently teach about is the proliferation of rules in government organizations. It was my view while working on contracting issues while in government – and it is my view as a scholar and teacher about management – that, while rules often serve valuable functions in organizations, government organizations are frequently too rule-bound, creating problems both for customer satisfaction and for performance.
In class, I often discuss what features of a government environment – in particular media and political scrutiny that put more emphasis on avoiding scandal than on achieving great success – tend to make government more rule-bound than private companies. In executive education, managers frequently discuss ways to reduce the negative effect of rules, such as being aggressive about using exception authorities when the rule doesn’t fit.
But I also always teach that many of the problems we see in managing government organizations often exist in the private sector as well, so we in government should not flagellate ourselves too much.
I have recently experienced a dramatic example of the truth of this observation as a customer of Sovereign Bank. It would give the worst of government bureaucracy and inflexibility a run for its money.
I have kept most of my money-market cash and certificates of deposit in the Harvard Square branch of Sovereign Bank for a while. Last year, the bank manager suggested I start using Sovereign for my checking, and for a number of reasons, I was tempted by his suggestion. However, I did have a worry, which was that I wanted funds to be transferred directly from my money market account to any new checking account whenever money was needed to cover a check, and I was concerned that regulations limited the number of withdrawals I could make each month. However, the manager assured me this would not create a problem, so I proceeded to spend a fair amount of time transferring a large number of automatic payments (e.g. credit card and utility bills) to the new checking account.
Soon the previous Harvard Square manager left, and soon I began receiving notices that I had made too many withdrawals a month from my money market fund, and that this wasn’t allowed. I explained to the new manager what I had been told and the amount of time I had spent transferring automatic payments out of the account (he already knew I was quite a good customer). I suggested the following solution: I would transfer a sum from money market into checking at the beginning of each month that would pay most or all of my checks, and they would give my checking account the same rate of interest as the money market, so I could just leave funds lying there for a while.
Some time later the manager got back to me and said my request had been turned down by a regional manager – Sovereign’s rule was not to offer interest on checking accounts.
I said to the branch manager to ask the regional manager to go up further in the bank to the level of somebody authorized to make an exception to the rule. The rule is not a law of nature or a government regulation. Somewhere within Sovereign Bank there was somebody authorized to make an exception. If it had to go to the CEO, take it there, I added -- somewhat rhetorically.
Well, I’ve now heard back from the regional manager. Sovereign has no interest-paying checking account “product,” he told me, so my request couldn’t be granted, no matter how good a customer I was. Yes, I understood they had no such “product,” that was why I was asking them to make an exception to their rule; if they had an interest-bearing “product,” there would be no need to make an exception. We went back and forth with him repeating “no product” in a way reminding one of the worst stereotype of an unresponsive bureaucrat.
I finally said that if he could not authorize an exception to their rule about no interest, I was asking him to take the decision up to a higher level of Sovereign Bank, where somebody was authorized to make an exception. He was authorized to make an exception, he said, but he chose not to do so. Why did he choose not to do so, I asked? Because Sovereign Bank had no interest-bearing “product.”


Posted on Aug 14, 2012 at 9:03 AM7 comments

Confessions of a PowerPoint convert

I have been a relatively late adopter of Microsoft’s PowerPoint. This is partly out of a general technoconservatism (perhaps a particularly inappropriate attitude for an FCW blogger, but whatever) and partly out of a view that slides interfere with communication between a speaker and the audience by directing the audience’s attention away from the speaker.

But a few years ago, I did make the switch, though reluctantly. More recently, I had three epiphanies that made me change my attitude very dramatically.

The first was seeing how grad students on the PhD job market making presentations at the Kennedy School had greatly improved the visual content and appeal of slides, replacing busy text-filled slides featuring thick black lettering with pictures, colors and animation, going light on text. I realized that I as a presentation participant found the slides engaging and helpful to my own retention of the messages.

Second, I had an interesting reaction attending the job talk presentation of a PhD student in history who had no slides at all but presented his material the way everyone used to present it – as a lecture, half-read from sheets of note paper. My reaction was that this presentation seemed incredibly old-fashioned and dinosauric, very uninteresting – and this reaction coming from a dinosaur.


Posted on Aug 09, 2012 at 12:09 PM7 comments

To learn more, keep quiet

In the globalized world in which we live, it becomes more and more important for all of us to learn more about the ways people in other cultures think. The benefits of doing so are both practical (ranging from being in a better position to sell others the products or services we make to avoiding international misunderstandings that can produce tensions or conflicts) and spiritual (simply appreciating better the diversity of human life and experience). Traditionally separated from Europe, Asia, and Africa by huge oceans and blessed with English, the world’s language, as our mother tongue, Americans haven’t always been great at such learning – we would do well to perform the thought experiment of asking ourselves how people in other countries were likely to react when prominent Americans suggested that Made in China Olympic uniforms be burned.

I am in Singapore for a few days, giving a keynote address at a conference discussing a report developed by the Asian Competitiveness Institute at the Lee Kuan Yew Public Policy School on the comparative competitiveness of 33 Indonesian provinces (my expertise here is on using performance measures such as these to improve government performance). I am the only non-Asian at the conference, so nothing said here is designed for American ears, and I know very little about Indonesia, so my ears have been especially open. (With the participants mostly Indonesians but a number of Singaporeans and some from other countries, the conference language is English, with Indonesian language interpretation – so one sees Indonesians addressing other Indonesians in English, a somewhat strange phenomenon that is actually more common in international settings than you might imagine.)


Posted on Jul 31, 2012 at 12:09 PM2 comments

Of bureaucracy and Betty Crocker

A theme always on the agenda in one of the classes I teach in executive education programs here at Harvard is the virtues and drawbacks of rules as a way to design organizations. We walk through the good, the bad, the ugly, and the management challenges of managing in a rules-bound organizational environment.
One point that always comes out in discussion is that rules and procedures can help employees figure out how to do their jobs well by reflecting knowledge and lessons learned from experience or from research. If we know that doing A, B, and C will almost always produce a good result, why keep A, B, and C secret from employees?
I illustrate this by showing a visual of a box of Betty Crocker brownie mix. Betty Crocker doesn’t just give you the mix and leave it to you to figure out how to make good brownies. Based on research at the Betty Crocker kitchens, they tell you to add an egg, a half cup of water, preheat the oven to 375, and bake for 8 minutes. Why should we ask people to re-invent the wheel?


Posted on Jul 27, 2012 at 12:09 PM1 comments

How to think about new policy proposals – feedback on my feedback

In recent blogs, I have suggested a number of ideas for specific ways to improve the procurement system – one is a way to encourage small businesses who currently don’t sell to government to  enter the federal marketplace and the other is a way to encourage contractors on fixed-priced contracts to  share some of their cost savings on those contracts with the government. I made these two suggestions in fairly rapid succession partly because I actually think that both are, on balance, good ideas that would improve the procurement system – but also as a way to encourage others in the system to get their thinking caps on and come up with ideas of their own. With the importance of government contracting, and the current budget environment, the procurement system can use good ideas for improvement.

Posted on Jul 17, 2012 at 12:09 PM9 comments

Leveraging buying power: A lesson from the private sector

The front page of the business section of today’s New York Times  (yes, Washington Post readers, the Times has a standalone business section that is several pages long) featured an article called “16 Million Reams of Paper, Please,” about how private equity firms such as the Blackstone Group have banded together to negotiate better pricing on common items such as office supplies, overnight packaging, and commodity IT for the companies they own in their portfolios.

“We have incredible leverage,” a senior Blackstone executive was quoted in the article as saying, “The more volume we have, the lower our prices go.” The purchasing entity, called CoreTrust, uses both pre-negotiated contracts and reverse auctions to bring prices down. They basically demand that their vendors give the purchasing entity the lowest price that has been negotiated by any of the companies owned by the private equity group. (The example given in the article was that the largest firm in the group was paying $6.95 for an overnight package shipment, while the smallest was paying $9.95 – CoreTrust negotiated a $6.95 price for all the companies in the group.)


Posted on Jul 12, 2012 at 12:09 PM8 comments

A new way to use past performance in contracting

I have, more or less forever (actually, since I published a book on government information technology procurement back in 1990), argued that consideration of vendor past performance in the award of new contracts has the potential, if used well, to dramatically improve the quality of vendor performance. It’s common sense – a key way any market economy works is that if you have a good experience with a product or service, you go back for more. If you don’t, you don’t.

I do believe that introducing consideration of past performance in government procurement in the 1990s improved the process, though I have also extensively written about problems and shortcomings in the system as used in the real world of government contracting.


Posted on Jul 09, 2012 at 12:09 PM11 comments

Visiting Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim museum in Spain

I am back in San Sebastian, a seaside town in the Basque country of northern Spain, for a brief visit to lecture to an adult education week, apparently an old Spanish tradition organized by universities in a number of cities. (Careful blog readers will note this is my third trip to Spain this year, especially amazing given that I had never visited Spain before this year – my academic research on organizational change is obviously in demand in this crisis-ridden country.)
My lecture done, I took a bus about an hour today to go to the biggest city of the Basque country, Bilbao, home of the world-renowned Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, the branch of New York’s Guggenheim opened in 1997 and the iconic work of the architect Frank Gehry. The museum is often presented as the most significant example ever of culture being used to turn a city around – making backwater Bilbao an instant hit on the tourist and economic development circuit.
In a number of ways, what I saw was not exactly what I had expected. Accounts I had read depicted Bilbao as a sort of Spanish Newark, a declining industrial city totally lacking in esthetic appeal till the museum came and transformed an awful area along the river into something completely different. I am sure the city has improved a lot since the museum came. But, for example, the area on the other side of the narrow Bilbao River from the museum has a number of quite attractive older buildings (I would guess late nineteenth century), which may well have been in poor shape before – I don’t know – but that were not the kind of warehouses or factory shells I imagined from the accounts to exist in the area near the museum.


Posted on Jun 29, 2012 at 12:09 PM0 comments

How to make a win/win for agencies and small business

One of the things I liked about meeting new Office of Federal Procurement Policy head Joe Jordan recently was that he is a taxpayer advocate and a small-business advocate at the same time. That’s good, because the two unfortunately don’t always mix. Of course, the government should make maximum use of entrepreneurial, innovative and nimble small businesses. In addition to that list of qualities, such firms are also often less expensive (because of lower overhead, among other things).

But the government small-business contractor lobby, which is dominated by firms that primarily or exclusively serve the government market rather than commercial small businesses, often seems interested mostly in asking the government to use small businesses even if they are more expensive and they are merely providing me-too body shop or reseller work that is pretty far from the image of Steve Jobs in a garage innovating the economy’s next direction.


Posted on Jun 26, 2012 at 12:09 PM11 comments

Meeting Joe Jordan

I recently had a chance to meet for the first time Joe Jordan, the newly Senate-confirmed administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. I had read media accounts about him that emphasized his previous job as head of small-business contracting at the Small Business Administration, which frankly made me a little worried Jordan might pursue a narrow agenda as OFPP administrator.

I was definitely wrong. I came away from meeting Jordan extremely impressed – and I predict the contracting community will, as people get to know him, be impressed as well. For starters, he is a genuinely nice, regular guy, unassuming, not full of himself, almost always a smile on his face. He’s the kind of person you’d like to spend time with at a backyard barbecue, not just at a meeting of the Chief Acquisition Officers Council.

Second, although Jordan doesn’t have the depth of expertise about government contracting Dan Gordon did (who does?), he has what in my view is the next-best thing: a business background working at McKinsey & Company for several years on organizational management improvements, with some emphasis on procurement savings, including working on a project with the State of Maine that cut almost 10 percent from its procurement costs.


Posted on Jun 21, 2012 at 12:09 PM2 comments

A young fed speaks

I had an interesting lunch today with a former fed who (in my humble view) is in a happy situation –- a child has followed his footsteps and entered government service, working in contracting and program management for a major federal agency.  The good news is that the son likes his job a lot. But the bigger story -– gleaned through several father-son conversations -- is more complicated.

Perhaps the two most important reasons the son likes his job are first, that he is constantly challenged to develop his skills, given assignments that in some sense are over his head, but that he loves to have the opportunity to learn and second, that the mission and what is being bought are both intrinsically interesting and substantively important for the nation.

The downside is that, according to the son, a main reason he is given so many challenging assignments is that the GS-15’s and even SES’ers above him are older people whom he describes as basically all being “retired in place.” They are willing to give the new recruit challenging work so they don’t have to do it themselves. This hardly bodes well for my friend’s son being able to gain the advantages of mentoring and dealing with a challenging assignment as part of a team including more experienced people.


Posted on Jun 19, 2012 at 12:09 PM7 comments

Dispatches from China

Here’s a collection of brief dispatches from a land of conspicuous consumption:

I had read an article somewhere in the Western media to the effect that sales in most luxury emporia in China – the often-enormous outlets for Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Cartier, etc. – were pretty small, because a lot of wealthy Chinese used the Chinese stores just to look, and waited to buy until they were traveling abroad, where prices for the luxury items were considerably lower than in China. I raised this with a Chinese friend in the luxury industry, asking whether these stores in China would be able to survive. No problem, she replied. First, the luxury companies were aware that their Chinese outlets functioned significantly just as shopping windows, but regarded the investment in Chinese stores as essential for maintaining their brands, so Chinese would buy them abroad. Second, many mall owners gave these luxury stores free rent, because their presence raised the mall’s stature and allowed them to get higher rents from other tenants. More

Posted on Jun 14, 2012 at 12:09 PM0 comments

Who are China's Americaphiles?

It is virtually impossible to get a reliable answer to a really important question about the US-China relationship: To what extent do the Chinese people admire and respect the US, and to what extent do they see themselves as our adversary, rising while we are declining? How many seek friendship, how many want superiority?

The most obvious reason it is so difficult to answer this question is that there are no opinion polls or independent research to consult. But a second reason is that, unless you speak good Chinese, the people with whom Americans associate in China are inevitably a biased sample of the population – people who speak good enough English to have a real conversation with Americans, and who are sympathetic enough to the US to wish to do so. Americans who are interested in China but don’t speak the language are frequently reminded of a “nationalist” current on the Chinese Internet that accuses the Chinese government of being too “soft” on America, and seeks more belligerent government responses to issues ranging from holdings of US dollar-denominated debt to efforts by the Philippines to claim South China Sea islands that China claims for itself.


Posted on Jun 12, 2012 at 12:09 PM7 comments

How IBM supports academic research on the business of government

I was very happy to see in a recent  post on by Matthew Weigelt that Dan Chenok will be succeeding the equally capable Jonathan Breul (who is retiring) as head of the IBM Center for the Business of Government. I am especially pleased because Dan was a student (and course assistant) of mine when he was studying for his Master of Public Policy degree at the Harvard Kennedy School in the late 1980’s, and because I had the pleasure of working with him when he was a civil servant working on IT policy at the Office of Management and Budget while I was administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy in the mid-1990’s.

Dan served in government for, I believe, 12 years after the Kennedy School, and rose either to a GS-15 or Senior Executive Service position from an entry-level job, and I know from dealing with him that even a decade after leaving government, he remains extraordinarily devoted to good government and naturally takes a fed’s-eye perspective. More

Posted on Jun 07, 2012 at 12:09 PM0 comments

Kelman gets schooled in China

I have been lucky enough to have an opportunity to visit a Chinese high school, the High School Affiliated With Renmin University (RDFZ). It is considered to be one of the best high schools in China, so not a typical one, but nonetheless my visit taught me a lot. I sat in on English and Chinese literature classes for 15-year-olds, spoke with some of the English and American faculty at the school, and ate lunch with some of the students.

One of the interesting things about the school is that it is actually divided into two programs. The larger regular program has a Chinese national curriculum, but there is also a smaller program (which is the one I visited) that is specifically designed to prepare students for applying to universities in the US and the UK. Indeed, these students do not take the Chinese national college entrance exam (their curriculum doesn’t fully prepare them for it), so they are not even able to attend a Chinese university after graduation. On the wall of the entrance to the section of the school for this program are listed the names of the previous year's graduating students and the American or British schools to which they were admitted. I noticed admissions to Boston College, Boston University, and Brandeis.
Fees for this program are high – about 100,000 RMB (over $15,000) a year – much higher than for the regular program, although the school is a public (government) school. Parents are told they should have a million RMB in the bank to send a child into the program, since the parents will need to pay American college tuition, with few scholarship prospects. I was told that when school is over, many parents pick children up in fancy cars. When I made a reference to people picking up kids with Audi 4s, I was told that parents who have an Audi 4 -- the car China provides for lower-ranking government officials -- don't earn  enough to afford the program – they would need enough income for an Audi 6 or an Audi 8.
The existence of this program shows the real attractiveness of Western education (and more broadly of the West) for many Chinese. One of the students with whom I ate lunch told me that she had spent a year attending fifth grade at a school in Buffalo, New York, and her parents accompanied her from China for the whole time to establish their residency and allow her to attend the school. 
Attending the classes was fascinating. The classroom was spartan, brightened up mainly by English-language sayings written in colored chalk on the back blackboard, such as “Never underestimate your power to change yourself” and “Four short words sum up what has lifted more successful individuals above the crowd:  never never give up.”


Posted on Jun 01, 2012 at 12:09 PM3 comments

China patterns: Universities, government and the Internet

I am back in China to attend an academic public management research conference and to give some lectures at two Chinese universities. (The Chinese academic year doesn't end until the end of June.)

The conference was interesting, and the quality of public administration research in China is definitely improving, though from a very low level. A real problem for Chinese public administration programs -- actually, this is probably an issue generally at Chinese universities -- is that the younger generation of scholars is much, much stronger than their elders, who often were appointed at a time when universities, much more than today, were politicized institutions that were arms of the state, and where scholars had little contact with researchers in the West.

In a Confucian society like China, where younger people are supposed to respect elders, this is an especially big problem. My impression is that the younger scholars attempt to deal with this situation partly by banding together with each other and partly by looking outwards towards the West. Chinese public administration research faces an additional problem, of course, which is that the institution they wish to study -- the Chinese government -- is secretive and generally not open to researchers. (A talented young Chinese public administration scholar I know with a PhD from an American university has spent years studying local government in the US, of all things, though he would bring incredible advantages to doing research about China, because he has not been able to get access to do research inside the Chinese government, although now he is finally trying.)


Posted on May 30, 2012 at 12:09 PM3 comments

Evidence-based budgeting: Everything old is new again

FCW recently ran an article about a new OMB memo regarding the use of program effectiveness evidence in connection with agency submissions for the FY14 budget. The article topped the list of FCW most-read articles for a while, showing there is interest in this topic.
“Evidence-based government” is not a new idea. The “planning-programming budgeting system” of the 1960’s and the “zero-based budgeting” idea in the 1970’s were both outgrowths of the idea that budget allocations should be based on evidence about program effectiveness. (These decades also saw a number of very expensive experiments testing the impact of a number of anti-poverty interventions, many of which came up dry, showing the programs didn’t help very much against poverty.) The idea of “performance-based budgeting,” promoted by the Bush administration, was similar. Pretty much any time an administration proposes cutting back or eliminating a program, the proposal is based on evidence the program doesn’t work.
The basic idea behind evidence-based government was expressed in a comment attributed to John Maynard Keynes, to the effect that “when the facts change, I change my opinion – what do you do, sir?” And the basic problem with evidence-based government is that there is a lot of evidence for a psychological mechanism whereby most people don’t behave the way Keynes said he behaved: When contrary facts come in, most people who don’t like them don’t change their opinion. Instead they challenge the facts.


Posted on May 25, 2012 at 12:09 PM1 comments

A frontline dispatch from Spain, a country in crisis

I have been in Barcelona for a few days at an academic conference, just as Spain is in the daily headlines with new crisis stories about possible bank runs, bailouts, and the collapse of the euro. I don’t want to say that the streets of the city show no evidence that the place is in the middle of a crisis, but you do have to look and ask to find the signs.

The banks are all open, with no lines or visible signs of panic. Despite a 25 percent unemployment rate, there are traffic jams at rush hour on the highways. There are some musicians asking for money in subway stations and on the trains themselves, but not noticeably more than in New York, and almost no beggars on the streets.

In Catalonia (of which Barcelona is the capital), the regional government has imposed a 5 percent wage cut for all civil servants, which includes professors at the (mostly public) universities, though this has not yet occurred at the national level or in many other regional governments. At a private business school where a friend teaches, the signs of crisis are more subtle: the faculty has been told to take economy class on the high-speed rail instead of first class, and the university has seen a dramatic improvement in the quality of people applying for junior-level positions as research assistants (that means lots of overqualified unemployed people are applying). Most people with jobs have received no pay increase for several years.


Posted on May 21, 2012 at 12:09 PM1 comments

Is the government getting aggressive on vendor prices? (Round Two)

During the economic crisis of 2008-2009, I wrote a number of blogs and columns (and also discussed at speaking engagements) the need to urge the government to seek price reductions in existing contracts and to be more aggressive about seeking discounts when new contracts were awarded. In one column, that I must admit went over like a lead balloon, (one commenter asked what I had been drinking when I wrote it), I urged defense contractors to accept a temporary 1 percent reduction in prices for weapons in production and 10 percent for spare parts. In general, I think the government response to this suggestion was underwhelming.

Look, what I was proposing was exactly what was happening at the time in the commercial world, in deals between private buyers and sellers.  A good Washington friend had commented to me that bids for renovating his apartment declined noticeably after the economic crisis set in.  The media at the time was filled with stories about big companies seeking to re-open lease rental rates and other prices. I remember myself at the depths of the crisis going from counter to counter at an airport rental car center seeking discounts off best published rates – and ended up getting discounts negotiated on the spot. This is not “anti-vendor,” or anti-good relations between government and industry, it is part of how the world works. (When the economy is tight, do vendors hold back from being aggressive on price in the name of industry-government cooperation?)


Posted on May 16, 2012 at 12:09 PM2 comments

Help for contract requirements

If you talk with contracting people, there is probably no theme that comes up more often than the challenges of working with program people to develop statements of requirements (hopefully performance-based as much as possible) for what they buy. Many program people don't know how to do this, and often they resist doing so -- seeing it as a bunch of bureaucracy imposed on them by contracting weenies.

While not denying that contracting people are capable of imposing valueless bureaucratic requirements on program folks -- sometimes because they just want to, though often because they are required by law -- in this case I think program people should reconsider any instinctive hostility. If you can't put down on paper what you want out of a contract, it is much more likely that the contractor won't give you what you need to get your program to work well, or that you will get overcharged due to rework and wheel-spinning.

Yes, requirements typically change over time, and it is often difficult to know exactly what you want when you are starting buying something new, but it is really in the program's interest -- and not just a bureaucratic requirement -- for program folks to do their best.


Posted on May 10, 2012 at 12:09 PM2 comments

Crafting better jobs for young contracting professionals


I recently participated in a panel at the annual conference ASI Government holds for their government subscribers, mostly contracting folks – and a “gov-only” crowd – on improving the acquisition workforce. (The overall theme of the conference was bridging communications gaps between contracting and program folks, and between government and vendors.) The conference was on a non-attribution basis, so I feel comfortable discussing only what I said myself, which I am sharing in this post.

I began by noting that, while the government has been hiring a lot of entry-level contracting professionals, I am very worried that unless we create interesting, challenging jobs for them, many will quickly leave.

Here’s the dilemma. When I have asked groups of young contracting professionals which kind of job situation they would prefer – one where they were so challenged that they often felt over their heads and not sure if they were doing the right thing or one where they were underchallenged with undemanding, too-simple work – 80% regularly say they’d prefer the first. Yet when older managers hear about young people wanting to be in over their heads, they worry the new hires will make mistakes and thereby create problems for the organization, so they segregate them into overly simple tasks.


Posted on May 03, 2012 at 12:09 PM8 comments

Spare parts pricing -- still crazy after all these years

I recently had an interesting conversation with a GS-15 contracting officer participating in a Kennedy School executive education program. She is involved in buying spare parts for weapons systems for one of the military services, and she wanted to talk with me about ongoing issues her organization is having with getting decent prices for parts. It sheds light on what may be a real target of opportunity for cost savings from contracting in this tight budget environment – if Defense Department contracting leadership will pay attention.

Needless to say, this issue has been around more or less forever. It first came to public attention with the spare parts horror stories of the 1980s (the infamous, but mythical, $600 hammer). The specifics of these stories were generally either wildly exaggerated or even completely false, but it is true that there were problems with poor pricing for sole-source parts (parts where the contractor developed the part and owned the data rights, so competition was not possible). In those days, the government got data for production costs for those parts, but problems frequently arose anyway, whether because the contractor’s monopoly position allowed them to insist on high prices though profits were way outside the government’s guidelines or because there were so many thousands of parts that it was impossible for the government to pay attention to prices for all of them (or a mixture of both).


Posted on Apr 30, 2012 at 12:09 PM3 comments

Korea copes with multiculturalism

I am in Korea for a few days of lectures, and I arrived in the middle of a national discussion involving the first naturalized Korean citizen ever elected to the Korean National Assembly, in the national congressional elections a few weeks ago. Her name is Jasmine Lee, a Filipina who became a Korean citizen after marrying her Korean husband.

This is a big deal because Korea, like Japan, has for thousands of years been an ethnically homogeneous nation, with great importance traditionally given to ethnic purity and bloodlines. (This is an even more important part of the ideology of the ruling Communist party in North Korea, which portrays South Korea as having been betrayed to American foreigners.) Korea and Japan, unique among the world’s nations to my knowledge, pay a lot of attention to blood types, believing that blood type influences personality and also compatibility between men and women – many Koreans put their blood type in the “About me” section of their Facebook page. (I have been pleased to learn, I guess, that my blood type, O, is considered a very good one for a male.)


Posted on Apr 27, 2012 at 12:09 PM8 comments

Must civil servants be boring?

There may be nothing more useful to say at this point about the GSA conference scandal. Yes, the San Francisco regional leadership made some appalling, wasteful choices about conferences. And no, problems such as these are not why we have a budget deficit, though many would like to think otherwise.

There is, though, one feature of the media and public reaction to all this that deserves note for its implications about the recruitment into and management of federal agencies. Two of the most arresting and oft-shown videos growing out of the notorious Western Regions Conference showed a clown, in bright red and other clown-typical colors, appearing at the conference and a GSA employee performing in a rap video about being commissioner for a day.

On the one hand, an important part of the ghoulish attraction to these videos involves the belief that the taxpayer was paying for the clown and that the rapper would waste money on big-screen televisions if he were commissioner for a day. However, my guess is that another part of the attraction of these videos is simply the fact of a clown at this conference and the fact that an employee was rapping.


Posted on Apr 24, 2012 at 12:09 PM9 comments

Are contractors taking government to the cleaners?

When I returned home from traveling abroad a few days ago, a pile of annual reports of companies whose shares I own were waiting in a pile of mail. This is company annual report season. There was something in one report I read that caught my eye because of its association with longstanding debates about government contracting.

 The report was from a company called Oceaneering International, a provider of oil exploration equipment. (I actually bought 300 shares of this stock in 1981, over 30 years ago, when a stockbroker said I had no energy stocks in my portfolio and ought to have at least one. Over the 30 years, the value of my investment has gone from $3600 to $62,000 – I wish all my investments had done that well, but that’s another story.)

 It turns out that about 10 percent of Oceaneering’s business – called their Advanced Technologies segment – is with the U.S. government, selling engineering services to the Navy and some special-made equipment to NASA and the Defense Department. (I like the fact that they call this “advanced technologies,” as opposed to their other businesses, which are hardly low-tech. More importantly, I think it is good for government contracting to have successful private firms doing a modest portion of their business with the government, rather than leaving the government market for such services and products to government-unique defense contractors or other government contractors who have no experience competing in the hard commercial world.) More

Posted on Apr 19, 2012 at 9:03 AM5 comments

Eurozone crisis, luxury consumption

Shortly before resigning in disgrace as the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi famously made a remark that there didn’t seem to be any crisis in Italy, because the restaurants were filled. This does not seem fully to apply to Spain, with its 23 percent unemployment, or even to France, which I am also visiting and which is in better shape than Spain. One of the restaurants I had hoped to eat at while in Barcelona, recommended by the 2009 edition of my Fodor’s guidebook, had closed. A tapas place in Madrid, about which the same guide had said come early or you won’t be able to get a seat for lunch, was largely empty even at 1:30, by which time even the Spanish have begun to sit down for lunch. At 6:30 a Saturday morning, a taxi driver was waiting outside my hotel on the outskirts of Barcelona, patiently hoping for a fare. Nonetheless, luxury consumption is not dead, even in a crisis-hit Eurozone.

Nestle, the Swiss food giant, has in recent years developed a new coffee offering to supplement its longtime megabrand Nescafe, now going downscale and tired except in some developing countries. Called Nespresso, it is a single-serve upscale coffee pouch coming in endless flavors – some of which actually have vintages (!) indicating what year’s coffee crop they come from -- and brewed in striking modernistic for-the-home coffee machines, sold in special stores devoted only to all things Nespresso. (I believe there are now a few of these outlets in the U.S.)


Posted on Apr 17, 2012 at 12:09 PM0 comments

Will high unemployment create a "burning platform" to encourage government change?

I am in Spain for a few days to teach two executive education half-day classes for the ESADE Business School public administration program, in Madrid and Barcelona. Spain, interestingly, has some of Europe’s finest business schools. The topic: leading change in the public sector.

There is probably no more famous idea about how to get change initiatives started than the metaphor – famed from hundreds of consultant slide shows over the years – of the “burning platform.” The image comes from the idea that workers on oil rigs will feverishly resist any efforts to change how they do their jobs unless and until their rig catches on fire. The basic idea is that organizational employees will resist changing how they work absent a crisis – absent a situation where they must “change or die.”

Well, if this approach has merit, it would have merit here in Spain. Unemployment is officially running at 23 percent, though there is a vibrant underground economy that means these numbers are somewhat exaggerated. The country’s budget deficit hovers at over 10 percent of GNP. As anyone following news from Europe and the Eurozone crisis is aware, the tribulations of the Spanish bond market are the stuff of international headlines. More

Posted on Apr 13, 2012 at 12:09 PM1 comments

Management theory and practice

My latest monthly column for FCW reports on academic research by Boaz Shamir of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Adam Grant of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania regarding  the question of whether government managers can improve the performance of their employees by themselves talking about the mission, values, and public purpose of their organizations. Regular readers of my column – may I take this occasion to urge blog readers to check the icon marked “Columns” on the left side of any page you open of the FCW website towards the beginning of each month to check for my newest column? – may have noticed that increasingly I have been using the column to present academic research relevant to public managers.

Some, perhaps many, practitioners are suspicious of scholarly work, including (maybe especially) scholarly work on organizations. Some of this, frankly, is simply anti-professor prejudice, no more attractive than other kinds of prejudice. Some are quick to dismiss academics as impractical, and to throw around phrases like, “This may look fine in theory, but it doesn’t work in practice.” Many are quick to accept the findings of academic research only when the findings correspond with their personal experiences in the workplace – and then are quick to denounce the findings as “obvious.”


Posted on Apr 06, 2012 at 12:09 PM0 comments

One more round of Singapore observations

1) In both Chinese and Indian cultures -- and perhaps elsewhere in Asia, though I’m not sure -- whiter shades of skin are, interestingly, highly valued for women. (For guys, darker skin has a somewhat macho image and thus less of an issue.) It is quite amazing to see the ads on the streets, and in department store windows, everywhere in Singapore for skin lightening treatments, which are available from pretty much all the major international cosmetics brands, from Lancome to Estee Lauder to the Japanese Shiseido. I even saw an ad for some contest being promoted by a big local department store chain among the different whitening products about which produces the greatest whitening effect – “may the fairest win” the contest announces.

2) Another interesting feature of Singaporean society (and again of a number of other Asian countries) is the increasing use of full-time household help – without circumlocution called “maids” – among professional and managerial families. This has spread rapidly in recent decades with the growth in wealth. “Thirty years ago,” reads a recent article in The Straits Times, “unless your family had a street named after an ancestor, few Singaporeans had servants.” Today it is one in six households. Most of the maids come from the poorer countries of the region, such as The Philippines and Indonesia. The government recently issued a regulation requiring that these maids, most of whom currently are on call seven days a week, be granted a day off (or extra pay for working seven days).


Posted on Mar 29, 2012 at 12:09 PM2 comments

One professor's adventures in the Singapore food scene

Some observations on the food scene in Singapore:

1) Singapore is of course the original home of “street food,” based in so-called “hawker centers” that are everywhere around the city. (I knew that “street food” had arrived when I was in Stockholm last year and saw a restaurant called “Singapore” in a fancy location downtown, with a sign indicating they served “street food.”) Hawkers have been around for a long time in Singapore, but they underwent an official rebirth into so-called “hawker centers” when the government set aside space, at low rent, in the government-owned housing developments that dominate the city, for hawkers in just about every residential community on the island. These serve low-priced (usually $6 or less) meals of various kinds of noodles, dumplings, soups, satays, etc. The government’s involvement in this, and the effort to channel chaos into some kind of order (though the hawker centers are pretty lively and even boisterous) is very typically Singaporean.

2) A kind person at a Harvard Club of Singapore dinner gave me some good advice – which I hadn’t known before, and which blog readers who interact with Chinese people in an eating setting may find useful – about chopstick etiquette. I was holding chopsticks in my hand and, in-between using them to take some food, gesticulating (mildly) with that hand. This turns out to be impolite. You should not move your chopsticks around with your hands or point with them. Put them down while you are gesticulating or don’t gesticulate.

3) The version of Chinese food served in Singapore restaurants has adapted to Western ways in one important respect – the frequent presence, at least in Chinese restaurants serving a lot of Western customers, of a Western-style dessert course. Traditional Chinese cuisine doesn’t really include dessert, although fruit is typically served at the end of a meal. Chinese people don’t make the same distinction Westerners do between sweet dishes and other foods. People who have eaten in a dim sum restaurant in an American Chinatown may have noticed that Chinese customers order, for example, dumplings with sweet bean taste as just another course of their meal, eaten in between spinach with garlic and spicy pork wontons. There does not seem to be a Chinese equivalent of every mother’s American phrase, “No dessert before you’ve finished your dinner.” However, in many Singapore Chinese restaurants, there is a mouth-watering page of desserts, generally pancakes or dumplings filled with different kinds of sweet pastes or sweetened dried fruits.

4) American fast food is big in Singapore, which boasts some chains – such as California Pizza Kitchen, Dunkin Donuts, and Popeye’s – not seen that much elsewhere in Asia. Starbucks outlets are everywhere, some of them open around the clock. However, the menu balance is very different from the US. Not surprisingly given the tropical climate, there is a big emphasis on cold drinks. However, even the hot coffee offerings have a different emphasis. Starbucks standard US offerings are reduced to a one pathetic line on the menu called “café Americano,” under a hot coffee section of the menu called “expressos.”

Posted on Mar 27, 2012 at 12:09 PM1 comments

Singapore observations

Some impressions I formed during my visit to Singapore:

1) Like many big cities in Asian countries that are getting richer, Singapore hosts an enormous shopping mall scene. On a warm Thursday evening, the number of people, mostly young people, ambling along Orchard Road, the city’s main upscale shopping street, rivaled the number one might see on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan on a typical weekend afternoon. And on weekend afternoons, the crowds inside the malls resembe those in suburban American mall on the day after Christmas. 

Does this translate into a retail sales explosion in Singapore? A business journalist here told me it does not. Many Singaporeans come to the malls for the free air conditioning, to window shop and to meet friends at the ever-crowded upscale food courts in these malls, which compared with their US counterparts have a larger number of quasi-destination locations. (Several malls have outlets of Taiwan’s dumpling emporium Din Tin Fung, which boasts a Michelin star!). These malls also feature gigantic branches of the world’s major luxury brands, such as Louis Vuitton (Asia’s favorite – on Orchard Road there are two Louis Vuitton shops within a quarter-mile of each other, and there is another stupendously sized one in the mall next to the Sands casino downtown). Other popular brands include Cartier, Chanel, and Prada. These shops, often two stories high, front with big picture windows onto the street from major Orchard Road malls such as Ion.  The luxury trade is still European-dominated;  US-based Tiffany’s has not been very successful in Asia outside of Japan, and at the Ion Mall their outlet is, as these things go, modest in size and has no street frontage.


Posted on Mar 23, 2012 at 12:09 PM3 comments

Asian Grammy coming soon?

Singapore’s major newspaper, The Straits Times, ran a long story a few days ago called “Quincy Jones Looks East,” about plans to create an Asian pop music Grammy Award. (By the way, the worldwide newspaper crisis somehow doesn’t seem to have hit Singapore. The Straits Times is chock full of ads, mostly for retail outlets, travel, real estate, and some consumer branded products, bringing back memories of a thick US paper from 30 years ago.)

In a combination that is incredibly Singapore-like in its mixture of a strong government with lots of commercial participation, the government’s Media Development Authority and Economic Development Board, along with funding from a large Singapore-based event management company, have supported creation of a Singapore-based Asia Academy of Music Arts and Sciences. The Academy has named Quincy Jones, now 79 years old and himself the winner of 27 Grammies, as board chairman. One of the first activities of the Academy, scheduled for next year, is an annual music awards ceremony intended as a pan-Asian Grammy, to be called the Come Together Awards Show.


Posted on Mar 20, 2012 at 12:09 PM3 comments

Understanding wealth management in Singapore

I am spending a few weeks in Singapore as a visiting professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. Singapore, a city-state with a population of 5 million (about one million of whom are temporary guest workers in construction, domestic help, and other unskilled occupations), now has one of the highest standards of living in the world.

Like China, it is filled with new high rises. But compared to China, the architecture is generally more graceful, the city planning much less chaotic, and – last but not least -- the air much cleaner. With its humid and often rainy year-round tropical climate -- the country is close to the equator -- the city is filled with greenery and blessed with a newly developed waterfront and harborside walking area, dominated by a brand-new Sands casino and adjacent art museum, both architecturally spectacular. (A former student from Singapore complained to me about living in a city whose signature building was a casino.)


Posted on Mar 15, 2012 at 12:09 PM3 comments

VA and reverse auctions: what's up?

Last Thursday, reported that the Veterans Affairs department's headquarters procurement shop had ordered a temporary halt to use of reverse auctions by the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), which runs the VA hospital system and is responsible for the vast bulk of VA purchasing. For several days, an unusually long time for an article, the news was on the top-five read and emailed articles on the Federal Computer Week site.

Clearly, this bolt from the blue has attracted a lot of interest outside the VA, given the rapid spread of reverse auctions as a money-saving tool in this time of tight budgets;  indeed, only last summer, OFPP Administrator Dan Gordon had highlighted the VHA's use of reverse auctions as a best practice for government.

I have been on the Board of Advisors to Fedbid -- the reverse auction provider that runs the VHA auctions -- for a number of years, and firmly believe the company's business model is aligned with the interests of taxpayers and agencies in saving money, an important priority, especially when budgets are as tight as they are now. Whenever I write about reverse auctions, I note my association with Fedbid, and I will confess to being slightly uneasy about weighing in on the VA headquarters bombshell, because some blog readers may think I'm biased.


Posted on Mar 13, 2012 at 12:09 PM16 comments

Free expression in China: Opportunities and limits

One of my favorite sources for Chinese news has become a monthly magazine, published in China but oriented for a Western audience. It's called NewsChina, and is an English-language version of a newsweekly in China called Zhongguo xinwen zhoukan (China Newsweek).

What is amazing to me about the magazine is how critical it often is about today's Chinese society. Every month they run a series of quotes under the rubric, "What They Say," which is filled with amazingly frank statements that Chinese academics, critics, writers, etc. make about China. So the March issue, for example, quotes the novelist Ge Fei as saying, "It is sickening to write of beauty in this filthy society, so I rewrote my first draft." Last month they quoted somebody else saying that the evening TV news broadcast on the government-run CCTV network was like a constant "re-run." I would estimate that in a typical month's issue, probably 90 percent of the articles are critical in one way or another of something going on in China.


Posted on Mar 08, 2012 at 12:09 PM3 comments

Should contractors keep the right to respond to past-performance reviews?

There’s some buzz around a provision in the newly introduced Comprehensive Contingency Contracting Reform Act that would eliminate the ability established in the Federal Acquisition Regulation for a contractor unhappy with their past-performance evaluation to enter their own version of events in the file and to appeal the original past-performance evaluation to one level higher in the organization from where the original evaluation was done.

Matthew Weigelt wrote about the provision recently on, with a moderately incendiary headline saying the provision would “stifle” contractor responses to past-performance reports. Matthew’s article was a top-five read and emailed article on the FCW site, so the issue is attracting attention.

With a small tweak, this could actually be a really good change. But the tweak is necessary, and I hope the bill’s authors will make it.


Posted on Mar 05, 2012 at 12:09 PM6 comments

PowerPoint and a new generation of visual learners

In some executive education courses I just finished teaching, I made probably the biggest change I have made in my teaching approach for 20 years. In a case-based class, very heavily dependent on class discussion rather than pre-programmed lecture material, I have introduced Microsoft PowerPoint. I don't mean PowerPoint 1.0 with bullet lists in text, but the kind of PowerPoint that younger faculty members are now using all the time: PowerPoint that is filled with photos, images, font of varying size and colors, and so-called “animation” where text and visuals appear sequentially rather than all at once, or zoom in and out on the slide.

Since this is still a discussion-based class, the presentations don’t dominate the class like they would in a lecture, but the way I have done it, they are definitely part of the class.

The fact that I finally concluded that I needed to do this reflects, I think, an important change in the way young people growing up now are learning and interacting with the world, which doubtless has significance beyond academia. More

Posted on Mar 01, 2012 at 12:09 PM6 comments

What Nixon and Kennedy could teach today's presidential contenders

I am preparing a lecture on the US elections that I will be giving the week after next at the Center for US Research Center at Tsinghua. One of the points I wanted to make is that US-China relations are a relatively minor theme in this year’s elections, and that, compared with the Cold War era, foreign policy in general plays less of a role in US politics these days. I had vaguely remembered that the opening statements in the very first televised presidential debate, the first Richard Nixon-John Kennedy debate in 1960, discussed foreign policy, in a way opening debate statements seldom would these days. So I accessed both Kennedy’s and Nixon’s opening statements in the first debate on Youtube.

(You can watch Kennedy's here and Nixon's here.)
The contrast was far more dramatic than I had expected.

The moderator, Howard K. Smith of ABC News, specifically announced at the beginning that the agreed-upon topic of the first debate was “restricted to internal or domestic American matters.” Yet Kennedy’s first lines in the very first televised presidential debate ever –- lines that are remembered today -- referenced Abraham Lincoln’s statement  before the Civil War about America not being able to survive half-slave and half-free, and stated that “in the election of 1960, and with the world around us, the question is whether the world can exist half slave and half free, whether it will move in the direction of freedom or in the direction of slavery.”


Posted on Feb 24, 2012 at 12:09 PM6 comments

"Lin-sanity" reveals Chinese culture

The Jeremy Lin phenomenon has occasioned lots of discussion in the U.S. of everything from Harvard and basketball to stereotypes and racism about Asian-Americans. It has also gotten some fascinating reactions in China that say something about traditional Chinese culture and about the state of Chinese politics today.
As a fascinating report on CNN noted, Lin-sanity has definitely hit China. Its arrival there should serve as a reminder of what the CNN report referred to as a “wide and inclusive sense of national identity” in Chinese culture. When an athlete whose ancestors came from Italy or Sweden makes it big in a U.S. sport that is followed abroad, it does get some minor special play in those countries, perhaps including local media interviews with relatives of the star still back in the country of origin. But, deep down, most Chinese actually think that the descendents of Chinese immigrants in the U.S. are really Chinese, not American – a view tied in with the long-time (though now fading) strong Chinese identification of “overseas Chinese” in Asia with their homeland, which often included not even taking citizenship where they lived.  More

Posted on Feb 22, 2012 at 12:09 PM0 comments

A BRAC-like commission for DOD cost savings -- and how it could be better

Tucked away in the president's new budget is a proposal for a "BRAC-like" commission to propose cuts and contribution increases for military retirement programs. The changes would not apply to current retirees but to future ones (it is unclear whether any such changes would apply to current service members when they retire from the military, or only to future service members).

The acronym BRAC stands for base realignment and closure. The phrase "BRAC-like commission" means something legislatively analogous to the rounds of base-closing commissions that have occurred in the past, where a body comes up with a package proposal that then is voted up or down in Congress without the possibility for amendments.

The theory behind this is that if amendments are allowed, everyone will try to eliminate the change that gores their ox, resulting in a situation where no change ever gets passed. This same theory was applied in last year's Simpson-Bowles deficit cutting commission, except that the commission didn't attain a large enough majority to trigger the up-or-down vote provision.
The cost of retirement benefits, including healthcare, to which service members pay only minimal contributions, threatens to overwhelm the Defense budget. That’s why Panetta wants to take on this politically charged issue. It's not an easy issue even substantively, because it's likely that at least part of any savings from these benefits might have to be made up in current pay, though my instinct is that not too many 18-year-olds are thinking much about retirement when they sign up for or even stay in the military.
I like the idea of a BRAC-like commission, but I wonder why it should be limited to savings from retirement benefits. First, just picking out retirement benefits adds to the third-rail dimensions of this. One of the merits of the up-or-down vote is that you take a package, which has various elements, each with the support of a different constituency, and other constituencies that may also support, or at least not oppose, the change. By limiting the changes to retirement programs, you get opposition from all the people who want the most expensive retirement benefits, but offer no other changes that such groups might be willing to accept, and that would create larger savings. So you bring out the one-issue opponents with fewer supporters to balance them. And substantively, shouldn't we be looking for other opportunities for cost savings other than retirement benefits?
I wonder whether the Defense Department shouldn't be looking to expand the scope of a cost-cutting BRAC. I'm not sure exactly how you'd set the parameters. They would need to be narrower than the kinds of general deficit reduction proposals that the Erskine-Bowles Commission was charged with. You wouldn't want to have a cost-cutting commission looking at military policy like which weapons we should buy. It shouldn't include military bases, since those would be dealt with by a BRAC commission. If third rails are being approached, maybe such a commission might look at Buy America provisions or price preferences that add to the Defense Department's procurement costs? Cost competitions between in-house providers and contractors for more maintenance work? Other areas for such a commission?

Posted on Feb 16, 2012 at 12:09 PM6 comments

Getting employees involved in cost cutting

Jim Tisdale, a smart, dedicated contracting legal advisor at an Air Force base in Los Angeles, often sends me emails commenting on my blog posts, asking my opinion on contracting developments, or sharing his thoughts. It's always a pleasure to hear from him.
The other day, responding to something I had sent him, he shared with me a cost-savings idea for the government that, with his permission, I am sharing in this post.

The idea is a simple one. When a federal employees travel, they can use negotiated rates the government has set up with local hotels, that are all priced under the government per diem. (These hotel discounts are not contracts with the government, and have no minimum order to obtain the rate.)  Jim's idea is that employees who can get a lower rate on a hotel -- say, through Priceline -- they should be able to keep half the difference between the published negotiated rate and the rate the employee pays.
I suggested an additional tweak on this to Jim, which he endorsed -- that if the employee bills the government for less than the maximum per diem for meals, the employee similarly be able to keep half the difference.
I raise Jim's example for a bunch of reasons. First, while this proposal would make only the smallest of impacts on the deficit, the cost to the government of getting these savings is zero -- it's pure deficit reduction. Second, I like the idea of putting this cost-saving activity in the hands of employees, because once they start helping save money, it gets them in the spirit to make other efforts as well. Third, Jim's cost-savings idea nicely reflects the cost-saving elements of the contracting culture, which I have urged many times be brought to the fore in the current fiscal environment.
I wonder if anybody can suggest other similar share-in-savings ideas for federal employees. Like all share-in-savings approaches, you need a baseline, and you need to make sure that you don't save money just by making performance worth -- the beauty of Jim's idea is that it passes both of those tests. Feds and others, more suggestions?

Posted on Feb 14, 2012 at 12:09 PM11 comments

The new generation and the media -- curiouser and curiouser

Okay, I am fully aware that I am a media dinosaur. I have hard copies of The New York Times and The Financial Times home delivered each morning. I get hard copy subscriptions to The Economist and Business Week. Frankly, my major online news source is, although I have recently started finding myself clicking through to maybe 5 or 10 links a week from Facebook friends that I see on my status update page.

But in viewing the media habits of young people who are interested in following the news (such as my students), I have assumed that few if any of them would read the hard copy of a newspaper, but that instead they would "read" a paper (such as The New York Times) online – probably not as carefully as somebody reads a hard copy paper, but more like skimming headlines. They would probably read some blogs. And now more and more they would be getting news by clicking to Facebook links.

Well, I had an interesting conversation at dinner with a Public Policy Fellow at LMI, the non-profit consulting company that works on improving government management, on whose Board of Directors I sit. LMI has about five such fellows a year, newly minted grads of public administration and public policy programs. I can't remember exactly how we got on the topic, but we got into a conversation about how he gets his news, which he said was common among people his age who like to follow current affairs.


Posted on Feb 10, 2012 at 12:09 PM3 comments

FUD surrounds cloud computing procurement process

Recently Alan Joch wrote a piece on the FCW website, called " Is Government Procurement Ready for the Cloud?"   The piece was one of the five-most read and emailed on the FCW website for two days running.
"Many IT procurement practices and contracting vehicles," Alan wrote, "were designed to help managers provision hardware and software, not on-demand services. Can the current acquisition practices translate easily to the dynamic world of cloud computing?" The article quoted a technical manager at DHS who was worried about the ability of the procurement system to accommodate to cloud computing, though it also quoted Larry Allen, longtime head of the Coalition for Government Procurement, which represents vendors on the GSA schedules, saying he didn't see a problem.
What was frustrating about the article, frankly, was the lack of specifics. The only actual example of a "procurement problem" the article cited was a protest over a requirement in one procurement that, for security reasons, the cloud infrastructure be hosted in the US. That requirement is not a "procurement problem'; it is a policy decision about risk that the procuring agency made.  (Maybe the procurement problem was the ability to protest. One may have different views about bid protests, and I am hardly known as one of the great supporters of protests, but this is hardly a special problem the procurement system has in buying cloud computing.) More

Posted on Feb 02, 2012 at 12:09 PM5 comments

Taking the pulse of China's youth -- again

I recently met with the latest group of China Future Leaders university students coming through Boston. There were 140 of them this time -- reflecting the growth of Chinese tourism to the US -- and I had to divide up my appearance into two meetings, because the room we had couldn't fit more than 100.
As I always do (faithful blog readers may recall earlier posts on these student visits), I asked them a bunch of questions at the beginning of each session. I started by asking them a version of a question I had asked in the past. First I asked them what the best thing about the US was, and the worst thing. Then I asked them the same question about China -- what were the best and worst things.
What was interesting was that there was very strong agreement, for both the US and China, about the best thing about each country, and much less about the worst thing. For the US, by far what the students shouted out was that the best thing was "freedom," with "education system" in a fairly distant second place as the best thing. (Critics of US education take note, though -- the Chinese were probably thinking more about universities than elementary or secondary schools).


Posted on Jan 30, 2012 at 9:03 AM5 comments

Successful IT projects: Good news travels slowly

Good news travels slowly, so perhaps it is not surprising that I only recently found out about an October 2011 GAO report called Critical Factors Underlying Successful Major Acquisitions, which examines seven recent government IT systems acquisitions -- ranging in dollar value from $35 million to $2 billion -- that have met their schedule, cost, and performance targets. (I don't recall seeing anything even in FCW about this report when it came out, and a search of the website with the key words GAO and the title of the report came up dry. FCW, tell me it isn't so!) 
The projects ranges from a logistics support system fielded by the Defense Information Systems Agency to a Department of Homeland Security for high-volume Mexican and Canadian border crossings that uses license plate identification and other technologies to allow checking background information about visitors without slowing down border crossings too much. Agencies were asked to identify projects, and GAO vetted project performance. They then interviewed people involved in the program with open-ended questions about what factors in their view contributed the most to program success. GAO coded and tabulated replies, and the report presents information about the most-common success factors the interviews revealed.
The single most common success factor -- mentioned in all 7 of the programs -- was that "program officials were actively engaged with stakeholders." GAO noted that the stakeholders were internal (including top management) and external (such as oversight bodies and non-government customers). Internal stakeholders were involved in ongoing meetings with the contractors, assessing progress and issues, and in reviewing contractor deliverables. In all but two of the cases, end users and other stakeholders were involved in the development of requirements and in informal testing prior to formal acceptance testing.
The next most common factor, present in six of the seven programs, was "program staff had the necessary knowledge and skills" and "senior department and agency executives supported the programs."


Posted on Jan 26, 2012 at 12:09 PM7 comments

The devil, the details and contract terms

I promised in my blog earlier this week, the one about research on cooperation among colleagues, to write about another interesting presentation we heard from a candidate for an assistant professor job in management: Eileen Chou of Kellogg Business School at Northwestern.

Chou's presentation -- with the cutesy title "The devil is in the details" -- presents some experiments challenging the common view that contracts with more specific contract terms are better than those with less specific ones. Some of the experiments were done in the lab, and others involved recruiting people for a job on the website mTurk. (The site is usually used to recruit real people for jobs they do at home, and has become an increasingly popular tool for academics who wish to study psychological phenomena.)
Chou looks at the effect the specificity of contract terms has on the performance of the person who has signed the contract. The contracts she considers are employment contracts, and she looks at them from the perspective of the employee. In the experiments, she manipulates some of the terms of the contracts to make them more or less specific.


Posted on Jan 20, 2012 at 12:09 PM8 comments

Is cooperation natural?

This is the season for "job talks," a ritual at research-oriented universities where faculty members hear presentations from the best of the newly minted PhDs who have applied for jobs as new assistant professors, and then choose which to hire. The hopefuls discuss their dissertations during these meetings, so in today's blog and on Thursday, I will report on the research of two young scholars applying for jobs at Harvard Business School and at the Harvard Kennedy School.
Dave Rand -- whose PhD is in mathematical biology from Harvard, but who is nonetheless on the job market to work on game theory, negotiations, and such -- presented a line of research directed at the question: Is it natural for people to cooperate with others?
He did a series of lab experiments involving a kind of cooperation game that is often studied in the lab. The basic structure of the game is that if a person behaves in a cooperative way and the other person in the game cooperates also, then both players gain -- but if you act selfishly and the other person cooperates, you are even better off. That creates an incentive for each party to act selfishly, hoping the other will cooperate, but if both act selfishly, both suffer.
What Rand wanted to investigate was the relationship between how quickly people make a decision how to behave and whether they choose to cooperate or to act selfishly. His idea was that if fast decisions are more likely to be cooperative, then cooperation is natural, while if fast decisions are more likely to be selfish, then trying to take advantage of others is natural.
Since many people erroneously believe that most social science research simply establishes the obvious, I will say that before I heard the results of the experiments, I didn't have a prediction. Readers may wish to venture a prediction (and think about how confident you are about your prediction) before reading the next paragraph.


Posted on Jan 17, 2012 at 9:03 AM3 comments

Message to Facebook: Knock off the changes.

Alice Lipowicz has an article at about increased privacy risks posed by "Timeline," the new way Facebook is formatting people's Facebook pages.

Timeline is currently available as an option but will be automatic for all Facebook users soon. Apparently, somehow the new Timeline feature will make it easier for people to see your list of other Facebook friends, compared to the current formatting, even if you want to hide your friends to some or all other people.
I will confess that I was extremely confused by Alice's explanation and didn't really understand why the new formatting will create these problems. But maybe my confusion illustrates the problem with the new changes -- the second mandatory change in Facebook page formats in just the last year.
Facebook has become more and more complicated to use. You need to be careful about all these requests to participate in innocuous applications because signing up for the app means making all your personal information available to the company providing the app. Facebook doesn't exactly go out of its way to inform people of that. Now there is this issue Alice points out that I personally found confusing and nontransparent as well.
Second, the Timeline formatting adds changes that are unclear and don't seem to add any value. Somehow, posts and messages are now divided up (in Timeline) to a left and right-hand side of your Facebook page, but the distinction between what goes on each side is unclear. Indeed, I have seen a number of status updates from Facebook friends about this left hand/right hand distinction, urging Facebook friends to go through various hoops so that everything appears on one side of the page or the other.
I remember a long time ago -- I am dating myself because this involves land lines -- we introduced some new telephone systems at the Kennedy School, and got an email telling us about a training session for using the new system. I told my assistant, "I don't want a telephone that I need a training session to use." Now, at some point the advantages of a new system are so great that people are ready and willing to train themselves to make use of the new features (think about people self-training to use their new iPhones). But the Facebook changes to me don't fall in that category. Facebook, please just let us enjoy the system, and stop forcing these unnecessary changes on us all the time!
A number of the reader comments on Alice's post had the message: "another reason not to participate in Facebook." That reaction is too bad, because I continue to find Facebook a really useful and fun medium. But the Facebook churn is giving change a bad name. This is "flavor of the month" at its worst.

Posted on Jan 12, 2012 at 12:09 PM2 comments

Better government management is in reach

I've been busy the last few days grading final student papers from my fall semester management and leadership course. Students could chose from among four books to write about.

Interestingly, about 80 percent of the students chose "The Progress Principle" (Harvard Business School Press 2011) by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer -- perhaps because it was the most recently published of the four, or perhaps because it was the shortest. For whatever reason they chose it, I have been impressed overall by the quality of many of the students' observations about the book, including applying it (as one of the questions requested) to their own work experiences before coming to the Kennedy School.

When the book came out last summer, I wrote a column about it because I really liked the book. Although there is a lot more to the book than the brutal summary I'm about to give, the basic message was simple and powerful: Day-to-day variations in employee performance are heavily driven by variations in their reactions to experiences at work, and the most powerful driver of how one experiences one's job in turn is whether an employee feels he or she has made some progress on a meaningful task that day. An important part of a manager's job is both to facilitate and recognize such everyday progress. (The book presents an arresting analogy with videogames, which keep people hooked by doling out constant, but small, doses of progress.)


Posted on Jan 10, 2012 at 12:09 PM3 comments

Secret Chinese vitamins

Many of the New Year's resolutions people make involve self-promises to behave in a more healthy way. I thought of this while getting ready to throw out a Chinese-language U.S.-published weekly magazine that a Chinese friend had used to cushion a present being sent me in a mail package. I couldn't read the Chinese, of course, but a full-page ad on the back page caught my eye. It was an ad for various vitamins, and, amidst all the Chinese, there was one piece of text in English clearly visible on each bottle: "Made in U.S.A." (Several of the bottles displayed American flags on the containers.)

This caught my eye because I know that health-conscious Chinese tourists coming to the U.S. to visit often buy vitamins to take home with their Louis Vuitton handbags and Jaeger-LeCoultre watches. They don't trust Chinese-made vitamins -- manufactured in an environment where safety regulation, to put it gently, is a work in progress -- worrying that they are adulterated at best and dangerous at worst. So the Made in America cachet signifies safety, backed up by U.S. government Food and Drug Administration inspections. Hence the ad I saw.


Posted on Jan 03, 2012 at 12:09 PM10 comments

Is Israeli democracy in danger?

I have been in Israel for a few days to present the report of a committee I chaired for the Israeli Ministry of Higher Education on Israeli university public-policy degree programs. It's an interesting time to be in Israel -- there has been increasing worry expressed (not the least in the US and other foreign media) about recent incidents involving ultra-orthodox religious groups in Israel that, many fear, threaten Israel's status as a nation that values equality and respect for others.

Among the incidents that have aroused concern have been an effort by ultra-orthodox Jews who run certain bus routes that go through ultra-orthodox neighborhoods to segregate men and women on the buses, an incident where ultra-orthodox soldiers walked out when women soldiers participated in singing in an army music concert, and so-called "price tag" (as in "there will be a price to be paid for") attacks on Israeli soldiers in retaliation for the government dismantling an unauthorized West Bank settlement.


Posted on Dec 22, 2011 at 12:09 PM6 comments

Games turn serious

There is a fascinating supplement in this week's issue of The Economist -- incidentally, probably the world's best magazine (Federal Computer Week, please don't be offended!) -- on the videogame industry. I was, as a fogie non-game player, very surprised to learn that revenues of the videogame industry are now twice those of the recorded music industry, and 60% of those of the movie industry (including DVD sales). The average gamer is not a high school boy but, in the U.S., 37 years old, and 42 percent of players are female.
The whole supplement is interesting, but I take this up as a blog because of a discussion at the end of the supplement on a new trend called "gamification" -- applying techniques that make games fun to problem-solving or other management issues inside organizations. The trend started with the development by scientists at the University of Washington of a game called "Foldit," which put in game format a complex scientific problem involving how protein amino acids are best "folded."  (It doesn't matter exactly what this means.)  Players who develop better folding patterns get higher scores. They have gotten 46,000 users competing in the game, and the solutions presented have, according to the supplement, "made serious contributions to biology." More

Posted on Dec 16, 2011 at 12:09 PM1 comments

Street art and Miami's urban revitalization

Although I still have 50 or so final student papers to grade, my classes are almost done. I spent the weekend in south Florida, taking advantage of a promotion through the frequent hotel guest program in which I participate. (When I made the reservation, I assumed that we would already have had several weeks of frigid weather in Boston, while in fact our eerily warm Thanksgiving period meant that it turned really cold only about two days before I left for the Florida warmth.)
A highlight of the visit was an afternoon in an edgy art district that has recently sprouted up less than two miles north of downtown Miami -- a bit south of the previously edgy but now mainstream Miami Design District -- called Wynwood. The story of this area is amazing and instructive. It once had shoe factories and warehouses, now long gone. What's left is some desolate blocks with auto body shops and warehouses. The architecture consisted of concrete one-story box structures.
A few years ago a real-estate developer (who was one of the people who had been involved in the resurrection of South Beach in Miami twenty years ago) basically bought up the entire neighborhood, I'm sure for a tiny sum. He proceeded to commission a number of artists to do wall paintings (aka graffiti) on the auto body and warehouse store fronts, and to set up space in an abandoned building lot for various artists to set up studios, and in the abandoned lot next door to display the outdoor works of different artists.


Posted on Dec 13, 2011 at 12:09 PM0 comments

Young feds are coming up fast

At the closing dinner for the executive education program we teach at the Kennedy School for federal GS-15s (and military counterparts), I sat next to Steve Varnum, a 31-year-old GS-15 from the General Services Administration Public Buildings Service. Varnum had promoted to the grade last year at age 30. He reflects in a dramatic way the generational transformation beginning to occur in the government, and I was eager to get his reflections on how he had been able to rise so fast.

After majoring in information technology management in college and graduating in 2002, Varnum took his first job with a government contractor that did work for GSA. However, after only two years with the contractor, he switched over to GSA, because he felt that GSA provided a clearer path for professional development and growth than the contracting industry. He also recognized the significance of public service, and felt his skills and abilities could be applied effectively to make the agency more efficient.


Posted on Dec 08, 2011 at 12:09 PM15 comments

Government employment still appeals

The New York Times recently ran a big advertising supplement by a company called Universum, which does surveys of college students in various countries to ask them about their idea of an ideal place to work. This year, Universum – based in Sweden -- did its first survey among US college students, surveying almost 62,000 undergraduates at 362 colleges. The result of the effort was list of the top 100 employers, as the students see it, in the categories of business, engineering, IT and natural sciences.
From the perspective of people worried about the ability of government to attract young people, the news was much better than I would have ever expected.
Let's start with two amazing results. NASA came in first place on the list of top employers for engineers, ahead of number 2-ranked Google. (Google was ranked number 1 for business jobs.)  And the National Institutes of Health came in first place for natural science jobs, ahead of number 2-ranked Mayo Clinic. More

Posted on Dec 05, 2011 at 12:09 PM5 comments

Steve Kelman, broken record: More on contracting cost savings

Yes, I know I have been writing and talking about this for a long time, but this really is serious. Really tight budgets are on their way, contracting should and will be asked to help out, and helping out reflects the pennypinching, deal-seeking features of the contracting culture.  (I mean this as a compliment.)
I participated in a panel on this topic at the recent National Contract Management Association government conference, and want to share the ideas I shared with the overflow crowd there. Since people have different levels of tolerance for being the first on your block to try something new, I am listing them in order from "nobody's ever done this before" all the way to "this is so old it is getting new again."
The "nobody's even done this before" idea is for the government to ask potential bidders on a contract during a draft request for proposals stage, before the contract (or task order) goes out for bid, to suggest ways the government could tweak the requirements to save significant money for little or no performance decrement -- and then to reward any bidders whose ideas are adopted in the final RFP with some number of evaluation points for each idea accepted. I discuss this idea in greater detail in an FCW column I just published.
Moving to ideas that a few have tried but haven't really taken off yet, I have two. One will be of no surprise to anybody who has followed my preaching on this for years -- look for opportunities for share-in-savings contracting, where a contractor is paid, all or in part, in the form of a share of the savings their effort generates. Needless to say, in a tight budget environment, this becomes even more attractive.


Posted on Nov 28, 2011 at 12:09 PM12 comments

Putting clarity into contracting

It is widely known that one reason contracts go south is that the government meant one thing when it wrote the contract requirements, and contractors interpret what the government wrote as meaning something else. Out of these differences of understanding grow bad blood, disputes, and lots of money down the drain.

Occasionally, the "misunderstandings" aren't really misunderstandings at all, and reflect an effort by the contractor to exploit ambiguous language to its own benefit. More often, however, the problem is simply that the language was not clear enough, and that the government honestly meant one thing, while the contractor honestly thought the government meant another.
In a panel in which I participated at the recent National Contract Management Association Wasington conference, Claire Grady, the Senior Procurement Executive at the Coast Guard, discussed a fascinating effort at the Coast Guard to deal with this, called a "customer advocacy team." (The customers in question here are the program offices buying the goods and services about which the requirements have been written). The team consists of program people whose job it is to translate what the customer wants into RFP (or contract change order) language that industry will be able to understand. So the job is being done by people who have the perspective of a program office, but communications skills that engineers in program offices often lack.
Grady's presentation was part of a panel at the conference on achieving cost savings in contracting. At the risk of sounding like a broken record -- (do younger blog readers know this expression, or am I pathetically dating myself?) -- this is going to be one of the central jobs of contracting professionals for the foreseeable future.


Posted on Nov 18, 2011 at 12:09 PM4 comments

What do supermarket cashiers, gas-station attendants and the dodo have in common?

A thousand people -- about the same number as last year -- are gathering in a huge ballroom in Bethesda, Md., for the annual two-day National Contract Management Association conference, which is targeted to government participants.

Even here, though, half the participants are from industry.

With the restrictions on travel that President Barack Obama recently imposed, we may be seeing more conferences in the DC area, though I have run into some government people from farther away.
The most interesting plenary event the first day was a panel of four senior government contracting folks, Nick Nayak (chief procurement officer of the Homeland Security department), Nancy Gunderson (senior procurement executive of the Health and Human Services department), and senior officials from the Defense Contract Management Agency and the Defense Contract Audit Agency.
Stan Soloway of the Professional Services Council, who did a great job as moderator, asked the panel to name the two most important trends they saw in contracting over the next two years. Not surprisingly, Nayak and Gunderson said the pressure for cost savings from contracting was the most important thing happening.


Posted on Nov 15, 2011 at 12:09 PM1 comments

Contracting out strikes out again among my students

For a number of years in my introductory management and leadership course for first-year master's students in our public policy program, I have taught a class on the make-buy decision for government: When should the government produce a product or service in-house, and when should it contract it out?

The class is based on a case involving a decision by the Massachusetts Department of Social Services to contract out delivery of child protective services for Latino immigrants to a Latino community organization. However, we also discuss a number of other situations. The class includes an Internet poll the students complete before class about whether government should "generally" contract out prisons, benefit determinations for welfare recipients, operation of data centers for the college student loan program, operation of campsites at national parks, or cost-benefit analysis studies used in preparing an environmental regulation.

Because of the Internet poll, which has had the same questions over the years, I can see how student attitudes toward these issues have changed over time. Around two or three years ago, I noticed student support for contracting out starting to dip. In earlier years, about a quarter of students favored contracting out prisons and benefit determinations, with about 60 percent opposed and the remainder not sure. About two-thirds favored contracting out the data centers and the cost-benefit analysis, with less than 20 percent opposed and the remainder not sure.


Posted on Nov 10, 2011 at 12:09 PM3 comments

Harsh budget reality hits home

When I was at the Executive Leadership Conference in Williamsburg, it was obvious that the tight budget situation was very much on the minds of the government participants. Interestingly, contractors seemed as a group to be more in denial than the government folks -- many somehow thought their companies would be spared or that cutbacks would end up not being so significant. I think the perception of the government folks is closer to reality than that of those contractors who don't think that much will change. I think the most realistic expectation is that following the last 10 years of feast we are most likely to have 10 years of famine -- unless the economy turns up more dramatically than most experts expect it will.
This change in mood among feds has come fairly suddenly. I have seen evidence of this just recently, among the class of about 60 GS 15's (and uniformed counterparts) in one of our recurring executive education programs at the Kennedy School. For this program, each participant prepares a one-page case summarizing a management or leadership problem they are currently needing to grapple with on the job. I always read these cases before classes start, to get a better feel for what is on people's minds. In the past, the cases have been all over the map – the closest thing to a pattern has been human resources issues such as problem employees and interpersonal conflicts in the organization.
This time, all of a sudden -- this wasn't even on the screen of the participant cases as recently as the last session of this program in May -- what stood out was the number of cases involving tight budgets.  This wasn't all the cases, to be sure – only about 10 of 60 -- but the number went from zero for years to 10, suddenly in this session of the program.
The specific sub-themes were diverse -- how to develop more cost-effective program delivery, will funding be cut off for IT or other administrative modernization efforts in midstream, can the agency reduce its use of leased space, etc. The participant cases were all about trying to find ways to cut costs, but the size of the cutbacks meant that agencies would be moving beyond the cliché of  "doing more with less" to the reality of doing less with less.


Posted on Nov 08, 2011 at 12:09 PM3 comments

Students demand 'tough love' for TSA screener

I recently used a case in my management and leadership class for first-year master's students at the Kennedy School about a screener at TSA in Logan Airport in Boston. (I understand from the author of the case at Harvard Business School that it is based on a true story, but not fully accurate as recounted.)
The screener joined TSA right after 9/11, motivated by patriotism and commitment to the TSA mission. At the time of his indiscretion several years later, he was still a committed employee, respected and liked by fellow screeners.

The case my students read: The employee is guarding the entrance to a secure area when, while he is talking on his cellphone to his young daughter ,a person gets into the secure area and disappears into the crowd, leading to a lockdown at the airport for 40 minutes until the person is found.
My main purpose in teaching the case was to engage the students in a discussion of how TSA management should design the screening function and environment to encourage and nurture better performance, based on employee support for TSA's public-service mission. But in the context of this, I also wanted to talk with the students about how to handle an individual employee's lapse. I asked them to consider whether punishing a mission-committed employee would send a bad signal to the workforce. Or would it perhaps be a kind of "tough love" that was necessary to show the organization's commitment to the mission?
To my surprise, about 60% of the students were for firing the employee (something that TSA's statute, which frees the agency from Title 5 civil service protections, allows the agency to do relatively easily). Out of a class of 50, two or three students wanted to give the employee counseling or additional training. Others proposed to suspend him without pay for some period of time.
This reaction from my students is consistent with attitudes in other human resources contexts that students have expressed in past years. Whenever the topic comes up in class, most of my master's students express support for pay for performance in federal workplaces. It is my impression, based on various discussions over the years, that many of the students are critical of government workplaces for being too "soft" and not performance-oriented enough.
Some readers will certainly assume that the students are reacting this way because they are snotty Harvard students with some sense of superiority. Putting the same statement in a more positive light, I think these student reactions do support findings in other research that -- perhaps not surprisingly -- smart and highly motivated employees are more attracted to workplaces that set high demands and reward high performance. The flip side of that is that if you have a workplace that doesn't do these things, you will attract less smart or highly motivated employees.
Clearly it is unrealistic -- and undesirable for that matter -- to aim for a federal civil service workforce of Ivy League students. But government does crucial work for our society, and if government can't attract a share of the smartest and most-motivated kids, it is not going to be able to perform that work as well. This is another reason why friends of good government need to be engaged in creating federal workplaces with a performance-oriented culture.

Posted on Nov 03, 2011 at 12:09 PM9 comments

How the $16 muffin story harms the discourse

You probably already saw this, but the Justice Department Inspector General has rescinded its claim about muffins at a conference costing $16 each. After further investigation, the IG has written that "we determined that our initial conclusions concerning the itemized costs of refreshments at the . . . conference were incorrect."

Along with some others, I had written skeptically when this report came out about whether this contention was true as reported -- there are just too many examples of these claims turning out, when you peel the onion, not to be true.

The Justice IG deserves credit for rescinding its claim and doing so publicly -- this is, unfortunately, not always the case when these kinds of bizarre allegations are made.  A larger point remains, however: this kind of approach to improving government
management -- an approach centered around the weird anecdote -- is dangerous because it makes folks out there believe that it is far easier to deal with the country's budget problems than it really is.


Posted on Oct 31, 2011 at 12:09 PM1 comments

More ELC observations from Steve Kelman

These are sort of random, as my kids would say, but here goes -- what they do have in common is that these are things I'm hearing from more than one person, things that seem to be on people's minds:

1) The biggest change going on right now in terms of what people expect from technology is social media. By this, people don't just mean Social Media with capital letters (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), but the idea that communication using technology should not be just one way, from sender to recipient -- from an agency to the public, in government's case. The social media idea with lower-case letters is that recipients should be given a chance to react to messages, and in many cases to help adapt or shape the messages.

2) Government needs to get much better at "fast failure." This is the good middle ground between the exaggerated risk aversion that comes from never being willing to fail and a "who cares if we fail" attitude that can bleed to quickly into indifference about results and success. In the IT arena, fast failure fits in to the idea of modular or agile development, getting increments out quickly so one can find out whether they are working, and make quicker go/no-go decisions.


Posted on Oct 25, 2011 at 12:09 PM4 comments

Blogging from ELC: On PowerPoint, tight budgets and innovation

The Executive Leadership Conference (ELC) in Williamsburg is probably the federal IT community's leading conference, with about a thousand participants (about two-thirds from industry, one-third from government). The conference just started Sunday night, and I will be sending at least one more post from Williamsburg, but I wanted to give some very quick initial impressions:

1) PowerPoint presentations are changing. The two plenary presentations so far (one by Martha Johnson, administrator of the General Services Administration, and Scott Klososky, a technology speaker) featured PowerPoint slides very unlike the traditional text-based, bullet-point, mini-speech style. Their slides were visually intense, with lots of pictures and even videos – and with minimal text, having no bullet points summarizing the remarks. I have noticed a similar change during the past few years in research presentations by grad students applying for junior-faculty jobs at the Kennedy School.


Posted on Oct 24, 2011 at 12:09 PM2 comments

Taiwan: Technology, theology and trouble

I am in Taiwan for a few days to participate in work to help develop the use of the case method in teaching Taiwanese civil servants. The weather has been very nice -- mid-70's, and often blue skies (Taipei suffers from some air pollution, but compared to the disgusting air in Beijing, it's very pleasant).
You know you're in a country where tech is important -- or maybe I should say, a country where nerds rule -- when the major editorial in the leading English-language newspaper is on the subject of the introduction of a new tablet computer by a local company. The editorial in the Taipei Times, about introduction of a new very lightweight laptop by the Taiwanese company Asustek (the ASUS brand), was a mixture of product review and commentary about what Taiwan needs to do to keep its strong role in high tech. The editorial's tone was devastating. At the press conference, the "dull presentation and monotonous tone almost sent the audience to sleep. The deafening claps that came during the launch of the firm’s Eee PC netbook in 2007 were not heard this time. No wows and no shouts of excitement were heard either, and the press room was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. ...
"The silence speaks volumes about the difficulties that lie ahead for ultrabooks — the name Intel has bestowed on this new breed of notebooks. ...Granted, Asustek is just selling the hardware, but its new offering fails to deliver the stylistic design that it needs if it really wants to challenge Apple. Asustek represents a microcosm of the PC industry, holding on tightly to the myth of prioritizing performance over everything else. ...


Posted on Oct 20, 2011 at 12:09 PM1 comments

Listening in on GovLoop

Every once in a while I like to check out what's happening at the "Acquisition 2.0" group (founded by the General Services Administration's Mary Davie) hosted in, the social networking site for federal government folks.

Govloop itself has more than doubled the number of people signed up for the site over the last year, to about 45,000 -- and the acquisition group (one of, amazingly, almost 900 groups on the site) currently has 718 members.

I read through a series of posts on the topic "Collaborate Lately," which solicited experiences and best practices about the value of getting industry collaboration with government early in the process of developing an RFP, using social media. The posts (15 in all) were very interesting. There were several posts from contractors noting that their firm's chain of command -- and particularly the business development people in charge of the interface with the agency on a procurement in the works -- were frequently very uneasy about unauthorized communication with the government using social media by rank-and-filers inside the company. The "official" people remain terrified of saying something that night tell competitors or the government too much. (I'm not sure if this is more a statement supporting the observation that companies who play mostly in the government marketplace tend to take on all the dysfunctional features of the behavior of their customers, or just that bureaucracy is bureaucracy everywhere, private or public.)


Posted on Oct 12, 2011 at 12:09 PM3 comments

Air Force procurement contests take wing

As blog readers are aware, I have been writing for years in support of the government making greater use of contests as a procurement tool -- announcing a performance objective and a prize for the first successful solution to the problem, where anyone can submit an entry. Aside from being a dramatic form of performance-based contracting, it opens up the procurement process and puts the emphasis on doing good work, not just filling out proposal paperwork. As with every off-the-beaten-path procurement technique, it is not suitable for everything, but like many unconventional approaches, it is underused.
I feel strongly enough about this issue that a few weeks ago in this blog, I chided my friend Alan Chvotkin for writing a column that I thought inappropriately discouraged agencies from trying out this idea.
Well, I recently discovered that the Air Force -- or more precisely the Air Force Research Lab in Ohio -- has successfully experimented with a procurement contest and is now taking up the technique as an accepted tool in their toolkit.
It began with a contest to develop a technology that could stop fleeing vehicles without permanent damage to the vehicle and without harming the occupants. The prize was $25,000. The contest was listed through the private firm, the leading player that advertises contests (mostly from the private sector) to possible participants.
Amazingly, the challenge attracted over 1000 entries. The winner was a retired 66-year-old mechanical engineer from Lima, Peru. His solution involved a remote controlled vehicle that can accelerate up to 130 miles per hour within 3 seconds, position itself under the car, and automatically trigger an airbag to lift the car and slide it to a stop.


Posted on Oct 07, 2011 at 12:09 PM5 comments

What annoys Chinese students

I recently had my once-a-quarter visit from a group – about 50 or so this time – of Chinese college students visiting the U.S. on a sort of mixed learning and tourism adventure. Since they (or more likely, their parents) pay for this trip, this is a sampler of students from comfortable homes. Nonetheless, it is really interesting to hear what is on their minds. Over half of them are visiting the U.S. for the first time.

Two questions I asked the students gave some insight on what kinds of things – on a relative scale – annoy Chinese students. I asked them how annoyed they were that Facebook was blocked in China, giving them the alternatives "very annoyed," "somewhat annoyed," "doesn't bother me," or "support the government's policy." On this question, about half the students said they were "very annoyed," and about one-quarter each said they were "somewhat annoyed" or that it didn't bother them. (One student raised his hand in support of the government's policy.) Those were numbers that I think most Americans would regard as good news: Young Chinese are not happy about restrictions on freedom the government imposes.


Posted on Oct 04, 2011 at 12:09 PM11 comments

An aspect of Chinese culture you don't hear much about

Reading a recent article in the Financial Times of London on protests in China ("Unrest Escalates Over Development Site") reminded me of a big difference between Chinese and U.S./western European cultures that I don't think gets much attention in discussions of China.
The protests are about land sales to local real estate developers who bring big profits to government and party officials. What caught my eye is how police reacted to the protests, in many cases beating demonstrators with their bare hands.
It reminded me of a book I read last year about the famine in China at the time of the Great Leap Forward in the early 1960s. According to the book, village officials often beat peasants who weren't working hard enough, sometimes to death. But it also reminded me of other things I have learned about Chinese culture in recent years. There is virtually no Chinese student whom I have asked about this who does not report having been periodically beaten or hit by their parents when they were growing up. (Think of a more extreme version of the recent "Tiger Mom" book.) If you watch Chinese movies, people in authority are frequently seen screaming at underlings, or at a minimum speaking in what to Western ears at any rate sounds like a very gruff, impolite tone of voice. Many Chinese I know appear more or less terrified of their bosses. More

Posted on Sep 29, 2011 at 12:09 PM5 comments

What does the $16 muffin really mean?

$600 hammer, step aside. The media has been abuzz with the story that the Department of Justice paid $16 apiece for muffins eaten at one department-sponsored conference. The Washington Post story on the costs paid for food service got far more comments on the paper’s website and tweets than President Obama’s speech around the same time to the General Assembly on Israel and Palestine.

Clearly this story makes great copy. But I have to ask two questions. First, is it true as an individual anecdote? Second, is it helpful to efforts to get the nation’s fiscal house in order?

On the first question, I will confess I am not a muffin expert. However, I have, over 30 years as a public management professor, frequently examined similar claims about outrageous government waste (and eaten several muffins). These claims turn out to be misleading, incomplete, and downright mistaken.


Posted on Sep 27, 2011 at 12:09 PM12 comments

A burst of Taiwanese democracy at Harvard

A few days ago, I got some emails informing me of two independent events the same afternoon at Harvard, one at the Kennedy School and the other at Harvard's Asia Center. The first event featured the campaign manager for incumbent Taiwan president Ma Ying-jeou and the other the presidential candidate of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, Tsai Ying-wen.

Both candidates are in the U.S. in the run-up to Taiwan's presidential election next January. Because of my interest in Taiwan, I decided to check out both appearances, expecting two seminar-style events where the candidates would speak to a handful of Taiwan aficionados.

I couldn't have been more wrong.

I arrived at the Kennedy School event a few minutes late to discover an overflow crowd of perhaps 200. The room was so packed, there was virtually no standing room left. Almost everyone there – more than 90 percent, I estimate – were ethnically Chinese or Chinese-American. (It was hard to tell how many were Taiwanese.) Several Taiwanese TV cameras were in the back of the room.


Posted on Sep 16, 2011 at 12:09 PM5 comments

Share-in-savings for energy-saving contracts -- how headquarters contracting shops can help

Readers of this blog and of my columns — most recently the blog post before this one on the Air Force buying and refurbishing used corporate jets for battlefield surveillance — know that I'm on something of a tear about challenging government contracting professionals to scour their brains and use their ingenuity to do our part to contribute to deficit reduction by finding ways to save money on what the government buys. Readers will also be aware that for years I have advocated greater use in government of share-in-savings contracts, the ultimate form of performance-based contract where the contractor is paid, all or in part, as a proportion of the savings their efforts generate.
Because of technical appropriations law issues involving something called "termination liabilities," agencies have been hesitant to seek out opportunities for these kinds of contracts (although in my view there are ways to deal with these problems — any interested agency should contact me for my thoughts). However, for many years there has been a statutory fix for this appropriations law issue with regard to one kind of share-in-savings contract, called Energy Savings Performance Contracts.


Posted on Sep 14, 2011 at 12:09 PM3 comments

Buying commercial items is back -- or is it?

There's nothing like a budget crisis to remind people of cost-saving notions that would be good ideas even if budgets weren't so tight.

Those ideas are often easier to ignore when the dollars are flowing fast, but perhaps they should not be. One such idea, featured in a recent article in the New York Times, is the Air Force's purchase of used corporate jets to be retooled as picture-taking spy planes.

The Air Force initially began buying the jets, stripping out the wet bars and flat-screen TVs, and replacing them with surveillance equipment to meet urgent needs because drones couldn't be built fast enough. But the service is doing it now to save money on certain intelligence-gathering uses. Aside from saving the Air Force lots of money, in battlefield situations in which field commanders want to talk with a live person, these small planes are considered superior to drones that send computer output to headquarters.

This harks back to the effort begun in the 1990s to look for opportunities for the government to avoid having something custom-made by a contractor specializing in government work and instead consider the larger range of products developed by industry for a general customer base. In doing so, the government could take advantage of research efforts and production processes whose costs were spread among a large number of customers rather than having all those costs be borne by the government, as is the case for government-unique items.

Some of that push survived the past decade, particularly the effort to move IT away from custom-built software and toward more integration of commercial packages. But it unfortunately lost emphasis and priority. Some thought of it as a one-size-fits-all solution and were taken aback when it sometimes turned out that commercial items were unsuitable for government requirements.

The push was also slowed by debates over the related but not identical movement to reduce government-unique oversight demands and contract terms. Critics were concerned that sole-source items that were highly adapted to government use (most notoriously, the C-130 airplane) were classified as "commercial items" and exempted from cost-disclosure rules, leading to situations in which it was alleged that the government got a bad price.

And some in the government — especially in the heightened oversight and compliance environment of the past few years — were more comfortable dealing with traditional contractors, with their well-developed government-only compliance systems, rather than with commercial companies that thought TINA was the name of a Hollywood starlet rather than a contracting compliance rule. (It stands for the Truth in Negotiations Act.)

It might well be that the government's tight budget situation will prompt officials to consider more seriously how to bring down costs radically by going outside the box of a build-it-from-scratch-for-the-government approach — as the Air Force has — to one that figures out how to make do with what's already out there.

David Van Buren, the Air Force's service acquisition executive, was quoted in the Times article as saying, "For me, this is a precursor of what we’re trying to do across the board.” I hope he's right.

Posted on Sep 08, 2011 at 12:09 PM4 comments

Why is GAO's glass so often half empty?

I saw a reference in the contracting trade press to a recent Government Accountability Office report on acquisition planning for service contracting, Acquisition Planning:  Opportunities to Build Strong Foundations for Better Services Contracts. For non-contracting cognoscenti, "acquisition planning" is the first stage of the procurement process, before source selection and contract management, where an agency develops its requirements and performance standards (including learning about what the market has to offer), picks its preferred contract type and sets its buying strategy. The report was based on an analysis of 24 service contracts awarded by the Homeland Security and Health and Human Services departments, NASA, and the U.S. Agency for International Development in fiscal years 2008 and 2009.
Contracting experts generally regard acquisition planning as quite important, but also deeply troubled. In the years when the contracts GAO examined were awarded, staff shortages and what is sometime perceived as a rush to award the contracts, made planning even more of an issue than it had been.


Posted on Sep 06, 2011 at 12:09 PM0 comments

Why Sweden's economy is thriving

I left Boston for Stockholm on Friday night, ahead of the hurricane, to give a talk at a European conference on government procurement. Bizarrely, it has been quite windy in Stockholm, for reasons that I assume have nothing to do with Irene, but I've been surprised to see how many tourists are in the middle of the city so late in the summer, with European vacations having more or less come to an end. The Central Station, near my hotel, is being dug up for construction of a new underground commuter train line, and the signs outside show an irony and low-key sense of humor that is not typical of the Swedish, proclaiming the station "the messiest in the world" and presenting an excuse for the harried passenger: "Sorry I'm late — I got held up in the chaos of the Central Station."
(There was an unusual comment about tourism in an editorial in Sweden's leading daily Dagens Nyheter about the upcoming Danish elections. Noting the 25 percent increase in tourism to Sweden since 2000, compared with a 25 percent decline in Denmark, the editorial suggested this was due to Denmark's bad reputation as an anti-immigrant and racist country compared with Sweden. This seems implausible, but who knows?)
Those who think about the Swedish economy at all — probably not a huge group, especially when you subtract the people who believe they are thinking about the Swedish economy but are actually thinking about Switzerland — probably associate it with Volvo, niche engineering industries similar to Germany's, and perhaps Spotify, the Swedish file-sharing company.


Posted on Aug 30, 2011 at 12:09 PM5 comments

Laptops in the classroom: tool or time-waster?

The semester will shortly begin at universities around the country, and with it the latest chapter of every professor's dilemma about students' use of laptops in class. For those unaware of this issue, many professors believe that laptops (and now mobile devices connecting to the Internet) threaten to bring an end to higher education.

Students find it convenient to take notes in class on these devices, but over the years more and more students have started to use laptops for various Internet-related activities — and paying less attention to the class.

Professors now need to figure out which policies to adopt regarding the acceptability of laptops in class. Five years ago nobody thought much of it, but now it’s become a common topic for discussion (or gossip) among faculty. (Some universities have adopted schoolwide policies. I have been told, though I have not confirmed this, that Harvard Business School bans laptops and has turned off wireless connections in classrooms. I also heard an unconfirmed story that the Kennedy School Student Government had considered requesting that laptops/mobile devices be banned, but in the end didn't do so.)
Though the question is a modern one, it raises ancient philosophical issues. The most basic one is whether banning laptops in the classroom (and/or banning their use for Internet surfing of various sorts) is paternalistic and hence unjustified. If students want to sacrifice part of the value of their expensive classroom time by multitasking, do faculty members have any right to stop them?  One might even argue that competition from the Internet is good, like other forms of competition, because it keeps faculty on their toes — bore the students, and they are off to the Internet.
These are not stupid arguments. But I have two counters.
One is that — especially at a place such as the Kennedy School, where we are educating people to serve others — student failure to pay sufficient attention in the classroom is likely to hurt their ability to do the best possible job after they graduate in serving society. Multitasking is unlikely to cause a student to do so badly in a class that he or she fails to graduate from the Kennedy School (if it threatens to do so, it is likely to be self-limiting), and probably won't affect a student's grades enough to cost the student a desired job. But it is likely to worsen the ability of our graduates to perform at the highest possible level on their jobs. Since education in other programs also is likely generally to produce gains for society, poorer student preparation hurts society, not just the student who is multitasking.
There is also an issue of respecting others in the classroom. Students who multitask on the Internet are not just showing disrespect for their teachers, they are also showing it for their classmates, suggesting that what people are saying doesn't merit undivided attention. This disrespect hurts others, not just the student who is multitasking.
By the way, I am curious whether this is an issue in countries outside the U.S., and, if so, how it is handled.
FYI, my own class policy is announced in my syllabus, as follows (emphases in the original): "In class, use of laptops to take notes is fine. However, use of laptops in class to check e-mail, surf the Web, use Facebook or Twitter, text,  etc. [is] unprofessional and disrespectful to everyone in the classroom. All mobile devices must be switched off during class." (With the spread of iPhones, I am adding for the first time language about mobile devices, which are rapidly becoming the most common way to use Facebook, Twitter and similar services.)

Posted on Aug 25, 2011 at 12:09 PM10 comments

Want to be a good IT professional? Build good networks (social ones)

I recently attended the annual meeting of the Academy of Management, the professional association for academics who study organizations. Most of the people there teach at business schools, but a good deal of the research they work on is applicable to the public as well as the private sectors.
I listened to an interesting paper, by Linda Pittenger of the Wesley Howe School of Technology Management at Stevens Institute of Technology, which I suspect falls into that category even though the data was gathered in the private sector. Pittenger interviewed 40 IT professionals at three large companies, 23 of them middle managers and 17 in non-supervisory roles. About half of them had been rated as having "superior" performance and the other half "average."

She asked each of them to discuss a recent experience where they had felt effective at whatever they were trying to accomplish, and another where they felt less effective.
The findings were interesting, and relevant I think to government IT professionals.
Both superior and average non-supervisory employees, Pittenger found, see their main skills as technological. The differences appeared when they discussed recent situations.


Posted on Aug 23, 2011 at 12:09 PM2 comments

Swap Social Security benefits for long-term care: Fair trade?

I know I am not the only boomer out there who feels healthy and has no real intention of retiring any time soon. I personally would have no problem if the retirement age was changed to 70, unless a person could prove poor health. A lot of people are living longer and healthier now.

I don't feel I really need Social Security to provide for my retirement income when I do retire. However, there is one financial issue involving old age that I do worry a lot about: outliving my assets if I am lucky enough to live to be really, really old. This is a version of a so-called tail risk, an unlikely event that would have bad consequences if it should come to pass.

How many of us feel confident that we would have enough assets to remain reasonably comfortable if we one day hit 90, 95 or even 100? Protecting against that risk is worth a lot to me.

One way of insuring against that risk is to buy long-term care insurance for nursing home or home care when one is really feeble and unable to take care of oneself. Such insurance policies are available but expensive.


Posted on Aug 19, 2011 at 12:09 PM5 comments

When the Wall fell, and everything after

Last Sunday I posted a short status update on my Facebook page:  "Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall. Its disappearance remains one of the greatest events of the last 50 years."

The Berlin Wall was an important part of a phase in my life. I spent several weeks in East Germany in 1971 and wrote an article in The New Yorker and then a book, "Behind the Berlin Wall," about my bizarre experiences there. At that time, taking advantage of my ability to speak German, I had significant opportunity to talk with ordinary East Germans and to observe the totally dysfunctional nature of East German communism.

After the article and book came out, I never wanted to take a chance on what might happen to me if I went back (an East German English-language propaganda sheet wrote several lengthy articles on my writings, which claimed among other things that everything I had written had been invented and that I had never even visited East Germany). Within a few months of the Wall coming down, I did go back, and re-established connections with some of the people I had met almost 20 years earlier, who were still at the same addresses. For all these reasons, I wanted to commemorate the anniversary with a Facebook status update.
I was surprised at the extensiveness of the reaction from Facebook friends. The post received 53 "likes," I am pretty sure the largest for anything I've ever posted on Facebook. Additionally, there were 28 comments, and the comments reflected a number of themes and reaction to the anniversary.
One theme was that this was something that only an older generation could appreciate — that young people couldn't really understand the effects of the Wall on the culture and mood in the West during the Cold War, or what its demolition (covered live on the news) meant in the West. One comment read:  "Perhaps only our generation will truly appreciate how much the world changed that day."


Posted on Aug 17, 2011 at 12:09 PM0 comments

Procurement contests pooh-poohed by an unlikely source

In a contracting world in which the climate for innovation has been terrible for a decade, one bright spot on a dim horizon has been a surge in the use of contests as a procurement tool.

The basic idea of a procurement contest — sometimes called a prize or challenge — is to set out a performance requirement for a capability that needs development work and offer a prize, usually money, for the first or best entity to produce a product or capability meeting the requirement.

Contests engender a lot of effort, and you pay only for results. Keep in mind the caveat: if it is a risky undertaking that may well fail, you need to be willing to pay more than you would have for a level-of-effort traditional procurement. The push for greater use of contests as a procurement technique has gotten the official blessing of the Office of Management and Budget, which has doubtless helped things along. Interest in contests has grown in the private sector as well, with an entire company,, acting as a platform through which private firms can advertise contest opportunities. NASA and some other government agencies have been using Innocentive as well.
Well, I recently read something that threw cold water on the idea. Before I tell you the unlikely source of this icy blast, here is a sample:


Posted on Aug 10, 2011 at 12:09 PM7 comments

Forget pay for performance: Here are the reforms execs really want

I am teaching in an executive education program for Senior Executive Service members right now, and, at the request of several of them, sat down for an informal lunch discussion about federal human resources issues.
I was teaching about performance measurement in government and had told the class that we would be discussing only issues of organization, unit, or team performance metrics, not individual performance appraisals. Some of the SESers told me they wanted to talk about pay for performance and issues related to performance appraisals, so we decided to have lunch and discuss them informally, outside of the class time.
There were five SESers around the table, and they all quickly agreed that, given a choice to have only one tool, they would much rather change the system to make it easier to get rid of an incompetent or unmotivated employee than to be able to use pay for performance.

It wasn't even a close call — bad employees are a disaster at the workplace. Pay for performance might, or might not, be nice to have but would be unlikely to come close to delivering the same benefits.


Posted on Aug 04, 2011 at 12:09 PM19 comments

China's many contradictions

It is impossible to spend time in China without the noticing the many contradictions at the heart of this amazing country.

Like this experience: Taking the subway in Shanghai during my first day in China, I watched a TV screen in the subway car that first showed grainy black-and-white film of Communist rebel soldiers fighting Japanese and domestic enemies, which ran in honor of the recent 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, followed immediately by a color ad for Wrigley Spearmint Gum. I was the only passenger paying attention to either one.

Or visiting the newly reopened National Museum of China in Tiananmen Square during my second day in Beijing, billed as the largest museum in the world. In the large center hall in the middle of the museum, with imposing walls and high ceilings, is a series of giant socialist realist paintings of Mao Zedong standing on mountaintops and talking with workers and peasant soldiers. Right next to this hall — 20 feet away — is the entrance to a temporary exhibition at the museum on the history of the Louis Vuitton brand, sponsored by the company. The exhibits seemed about equally crowded. More

Posted on Aug 02, 2011 at 12:09 PM2 comments

China's future may be glimpsed in its past

I have been visiting the city of Xi'an in central China, home of the Terracotta warriors from one of China's oldest dynasties (and hence a place many American tourists visit), and also the capital of the Chinese Tang Dynasty, which ruled China for more than 200 years around 1000 A.D.

Recently, the city opened an enormous park at the site of the Deming ("virtue and brightness") Palace complex, home of the Tang emperors. The palaces themselves were destroyed many centuries ago, but the park has a museum and an amazing 3-D movie shown on an IMAX screen that gives a dramatized story of an episode in Tang Dynasty history. Visiting the area gave me a chance to learn from several Chinese professors about the key role the Tang Dynasty plays in Chinese consciousness.
It is a widespread view in Chinese culture that the Tang Dynasty was the golden age of China. Why? That is an interesting question because it yields different answers that suggest different views of China's current situation and future.


Posted on Jul 29, 2011 at 12:09 PM6 comments

Chinese rail crash coverage shows limits of press freedom there

Tuesday morning (Chinese time) I saw a CNN report in my hotel room discussing the rising anger in China about the high-speed rail accident and noting microblog (Weibo) posts stating that the government had told the media not to question the government's version of the accident (train stalled because hit by lightning). The report also noted questions in the Weibo world about why  the authorities had the derailed trains quickly torn apart and buried by earthmoving equipment.

CNN is available in hotels and to people who have satellites, which are technically illegal but which large numbers of people have anyway. Sometimes, when CNN reports from China, the screen suddenly goes blank. However, these reports were broadcast. The accident was the lead story on the Chinese-language morning news.

After listening to the CNN report while lying in bed, I picked up a copy of the government-owned China Daily at breakfast. (Readers of The Washington Post or The New York Times may recall the recent paid ad supplements China Daily has put in those papers; the paper now also publishes each day in the U.S. Here is a link to their website, which unfortunately does not run full-text versions of their articles.)


Posted on Jul 25, 2011 at 12:09 PM3 comments

Rail accident reveals nation's tensions, contradictions

When I arrived in China about 10 days ago, there was a fair amount of complaining in the English-language press about delays and breakdowns in the just-opened high-speed rail between Shanghai and Beijing (a distance somewhat longer than between Boston and Richmond).

It was also a topic that Chinese people brought up spontaneously in discussions in both cities. My own initial reaction when I heard all this chatter was that these were likely just startup difficulties that plague any new system. I have written a teaching case on the Taiwan high-speed rail, and so I know it initially had had similar problems, soon overcome.
But over the weekend a major accident occurred on the Shanghai-Beijing high-speed rail that killed 39 people, and injured almost 200, including two Americans. (Here is the link to the story in the New York Times)  One train stopped on a trestle after lightning struck it, and another train hit it from behind, causing several of the cars to plunge into the river below. There was some failure in the warning equipment (or in the human reaction) that is supposed to warn the engineer that there is a stopped train ahead. This raises the question of the quality of safety standards for these trains, which have been built very quickly in a country characterized by pretty high levels of corruption.
It has been fascinating watching the story unfold here, though my Chinese is so poor that I have only a vague idea of what has been on local TV. The story indicates both the big social tensions, and also the contradictions, that characterize Chinese society today.
Following hot on the heals of grumbling about the train delays and cancellations, the accident seems to have unleashed a storm of popular anger at the government, in a context of resentment over issues such as high housing prices, corruption, and food safety. The anger finds expression in the Chinese equivalents to Twitter called Weibo. (Or in English, “microblogs. Twitter is blocked in China, but the local alternatives are wildly popular.)


Posted on Jul 25, 2011 at 12:09 PM2 comments

The Happy Buddha professor drives the Treasure Horse

I am in China to give several lectures, but there’s a very cool bonus for me this time: some personal Chinese language lessons at one of the universities I am visiting.

I have been accumulating a list of the names used in China for various Western brands. The names of these brands are invariably transformed into Chinese characters that more or less sound like the Western name. Occasionally, these characters are just sort of nonsense sounds that have no real meaning, but often, clever Chinese marketing people come up with sounds that both sound like the Western name for the product but also express some actual message about the product itself.
Probably the first of these clever renderings occurred perhaps a hundred years ago, involving one of the most iconic Western brand names in China. I refer of course to Harvard University, the Louis Vuitton of higher education. Somebody at Harvard -- Harvard probably didn't have marketing people in those days -- came up with the characters Ha Fuo to render Harvard into Chinese. These characters mean "Happy Buddha" --  perhaps not a perfect expression of the Harvard message, but nonetheless an interesting one.
My personal favorite rendering into Chinese is BMW. It is "Bao Ma," which when you pronounce it in Chinese actually sounds very close to "Beamer," a common English nickname for the brand.  But the coolest thing is what it means -- Treasure Horse.


Posted on Jul 21, 2011 at 12:09 PM4 comments

Crowdsourcing knowledge management

At the National Contract Management Association World Conference, I had an interesting chat with Steve Gluckman, a Kennedy School mid-career Master in Public Administration grad from a few years ago and currently a senior executive at ASI Government.

ASI Government is filled with ex-government contracting officers and advises government organizations on acquisition strategies and on improving the capabilities of their procurement workforce.

Steve will be coming periodically to Cambridge during the fall as a fellow of our Center for Business and Government, working on a project on knowledge management in government – that is, how do we get needed advice and information to new employees and to functional specialists often dispersed in cross-functional project teams?

He has an interesting approach to the topic. Steve notes that traditionally agencies have tried to build expensive database-like knowledge repositories, developed by contractors and chock-a-block filled with various kinds of information. The problem is that these repositories often go largely unused. He wants to explore various ways to get information and advice to appear more spontaneously and organically from the people in an organization, and from existing sources.


Posted on Jul 18, 2011 at 12:09 PM1 comments

Vendors gripe at contracting conference

While Washington, D.C., swelters under scorching heat, Denver offered cool, pleasant weather and unusual heavy rains for the 1,300 people who journeyed to the city for the big annual meeting of the professional association of contracting professionals in industry and government., the National Contract Management Association World Congress.

The overall atmosphere here reflects a fairly sour mood about the state of government contracting. Partly, the contractors (most contractors in NCMA are from the defense industry, and some are from IT) are realizing that contracting dollars are going to be really tight given the budget situation. But there also seems to be a feeling — among the government people as well as industry — that the system is still in a mode, dating to the George W. Bush years, of laying on more regulations, requirements and burdens that are hard for the government to meet given limited resources.

Industry resents such regulations as attacks on their integrity and their bottom line.


Posted on Jul 12, 2011 at 12:09 PM4 comments

We'll always have Paris -- and so will the Chinese

I'm stopping in Paris for two days on my way back to the United States just to look around — lots of walking in famous and obscure parts of the city! — and to have a chance to speak French a bit. French was the first foreign language I started studying, in junior high school. But even in France, the rise of Asia is very visible.

China is not even close to replacing U.S. influence on French culture, of course. In the land of haute cuisine, the McDonald’s restaurants around the city are packed. Blue jeans remain the preferred summer dress. A new Abercrombie and Fitch location on the Champs-Elysees is drawing big crowds. Starbucks stores are sprouting up all over town. A newspaper article noted that when someone from France goes to the United States for the first time, everything seems familiar even though he or she has never been there before, thanks to the many American movies people have seen.

But the Asians are coming. Mostly, they come as tourists and consumers of French sophistication (or should I say iconic French luxury brands?) rather than producers. On a previous trip, I had seen the lines of almost exclusively Asian tourists waiting for admission to the gigantic, colossally high-ceilinged Louis Vuitton emporium on the Champs-Elysees.


Posted on Jul 07, 2011 at 12:09 PM0 comments

Russia provides a case study in government corruption

"Every educated person here is pessimistic about this country's future,” said the director of a Russian public relations firm, speaking over dinner during my stay in Moscow.

I was taken aback by the declaration, but perhaps I should not have been. Every Russian I asked about the situation in their country said something similar.

What people talk about the most is corruption. People do not feel secure either in their personal lives or with their property, not because of a totalitarian state but because of a gangster one. Somebody told me a story about a foreigner who had tried to cross one of Moscow's cavernous Stalin-era boulevards rather than using the underground passage provided for this purpose. Such an action is extremely unwise, bordering on suicidal, but it turns out also to be illegal.

Police stopped the man and told him he was under arrest for this crime. The police officer quickly added, however, that the foreigner could give the police officer 10,000 rubles (about $400) and all would be forgiven. The man didn't have 10,000 rubles in cash with him, he said. The officer, it developed, was willing to take whatever cash the man had in his wallet instead.


Posted on Jul 05, 2011 at 12:09 PM2 comments

Back in the U.S.S.R.?

I am visiting Moscow, for two conferences that coincidentally are taking place one right after the other, for the first time since I was a student. The city is a tumultuous assault on the senses!

Taking a train into the city from a crowded, chaotic, not-very-modern airport, I arrived at Paveletsky station, which is a bit outside downtown, to transfer to the Metro to my hotel. I suddenly had an amazing feeling of deja vu — not of Moscow during my one previous visit a long time ago, but of East Berlin before the fall of Communism, the kind of feeling that one cannot experience in East Berlin anymore. How to describe? Dingy concrete walls, blackened with soot. Concrete pavement ground down by countless people and not really maintained. Signs poorly lit. A passel of tiny kiosk-like stores. Far more people smoking than one would see in Western Europe or the United States.

I am staying at the Hotel National just north of Red Square, which creates a weird experience of its own because I had stayed at this hotel in my previous visit as a student tourist in the 1970s. It was actually more affordable for me on a student income then than it is now on a professor's income. At that time, it was a dingy and shabby shadow of its 1903 (pre-Russian Revolution) self. People with more money would have stayed at the Rossiya skyscraper, built by the Soviets in the 1960s just south of Red Square. Well, the Rossiya was so poorly constructed that it was demolished after the end of Communism, while the National was lavishly renovated to its 1903 glory and taken over by the French Le Meridien chain (since bought by U.S.-based Starwood Hotels).


Posted on Jul 01, 2011 at 12:09 PM1 comments

Good news for America (in my opinion)

Editor's note: This story was modified after its original publication to add a link.  

Immigration is, of course, a hot-button issue. But I think it would be hard for anyone but a person who is congenitally pessimistic, very hard-hearted or an anti-immigrant fanatic to fail to be moved by the set of names, pictures, birthplaces and post-high school destinations of the 41 Boston public high school valedictorians published in my hometown paper, The Boston Globe.

I saw this in the actual paper -- here is a link to the article and beautiful photos of the kids. I’ll bet that readers' hometown newspapers published something similar, so you can check to see if the results in your hometown mirror what I'm about to report.

Of the 41 valedictorians, 16 of these high-achieving high school students were not born in the United States. Three were born in Haiti, three in China, two in Vietnam, and others in slightly unlikely locations including Senegal, Albania, Afghanistan and Iraq. Of the non-black students born in the United States, judging from their names, the majority are Asians or Latinos, likely second-generation kids of immigrant parents.


Posted on Jun 23, 2011 at 12:09 PM1 comments

Continuity after Kundra

Just recently -- in the context of expressing some displeasure at the failure of the Obama administration to continue emphasizing the effort that the first Bush administration started to spread the use of performance-based contracting -- I blogged about the importance of continuity across political appointees in trying to implement management reforms in government.

Making major management reforms in government takes time. Ironically, one problem is that such reforms are often not partisan. That sounds good, but it means that when new political appointees rush to eliminate what the previous politicals have done, it just creates "flavor-of-the-month" cynicism among career employees and diminishes the willingness of the career folks to work on any management improvement initiatives politicals promote.

Though I didn't mention it in the previous blog, I remember my annoyance when the Bush folks arrived in 2001 that  within days they dismantled any mention or trace of the Clinton/Gore administration's "reinventing government" effort. It was, so to speak, bush league.
Well, when I wrote the previous blog, I had no idea that the issue of continuity in management reform was about to be raised in a very dramatic way for the federal IT community by the departure of federal CIO Vivek Kundra.
From my perspective, there are two major management reforms associated with Kundra that involve long-term and big changes in how federal IT operates, and both are very much works in progress.  One is the TechStat meetings to assess progress in major IT projects. The second is the Office of Management and Budget's 25-point plan for improving federal IT project success, with particular emphasis on improving program management and on agile software development. (For a number of reasons, I rank Kundra's "transparency" initiatives, which are the sexiest of his efforts to the world outside of the IT community, as less significant.)
In neither case is the success of these initiatives assured, particularly the second, which involves very significant alterations in how the government manages major IT projects.
Now the administration will need to name a new CIO. My view is that one prime qualification for the person to be selected is his or her commitment to continuity on these major Kundra initiatives. If we can't even get continuity within one administration — if the temptations to make a mark by de-emphasizing the old and emphasizing some new "signature initiatives" is too great — then what are the realistic chances for ever getting continuity across administrations?
To any potential new CIO, I would say that successfully implementing and institutionalizing some major improvements in how the government does business is a ticket to making a major mark, particularly given the poor track record of politicals in slogging through execution as opposed to the klieg lights and media stories attached to new announcements. If you persist and succeed in some important and valuable old initiatives, you will be a hero to the IT community and to all friends of improved public management.
I hope the White House personnel folks will be asking this question of all the potential candidates.

Posted on Jun 20, 2011 at 12:09 PM6 comments

Here comes the sun — at 2 a.m.

Swedes are among the most climate-obsessed people on earth. The reason is not surprising: Sweden's location in the far north gives it enormous contrasts, in terms of temperature and amount of sun, during the different times of the year.

In mid-winter in Stockholm, the sun doesn't come up until 10 a.m., and it gets dark by about 2 p.m. Swedes spend their time in darkness, lighting the colored candles that are popular in Sweden and even celebrating a holiday where children go around with candle-studded wreaths (now generally electric light bulbs) on their heads. Swedes have long, cold winters that, depending on the year, go from early November through April — although global warming has made those winters less forbidding.

The reward for this cold gloom is the Swedish summer. This time of the year in Stockholm — the longest day of the year will be coming up June 21 — the sun goes down around 10 p.m. and is up again by 2 a.m. Often, as they have been during my visit, the skies are blue, the humidity is low, and the temperatures are in the low-to-mid 70's (about 22 degrees Celsius), sort of San Diego weather.


Posted on Jun 16, 2011 at 12:09 PM0 comments

Stockholm syndrome: Sweden sounds more and more like America

I am in Sweden to do one of my periodic appearances on the morning TV show Nyhetsmorgon, speaking about the United States. (This time my theme was the Republican presidential field. If for some weird reason anybody wants to see this — it's in Swedish! — here's a link.)

It is always interesting for me to take the pulse of this country, which in some ways is very much like the United States but in others is very different.

Swedes have sometimes been criticized for being too smug about how well everything works in Sweden — often, stated or unstated, in comparison to the United States. Right now, the Swedish economy is doing quite well. Exports to Asia, Sweden's strong niche manufacturing companies and declining unemployment all contribute to its fiscal health.

But I noticed a trend in Sweden toward more willingness to accept the United States as a social model from a column in Svenska Dagbladet, one of the country's leading dailies, titled "Safety and Trust in Times Square." The column reported that the tables and chairs New York City officials placed in Times Square for tourists to use — part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's efforts to introduce more pedestrian zones in Manhattan — were left out all night with no chains attaching them to the sidewalk and were still there in the morning.


Posted on Jun 13, 2011 at 12:09 PM1 comments

Public management conference offers insights you should care about

The Public Management Research Association has emerged over the last few years as the premier professional association for academics doing research on public-sector management, mostly based in public administration programs at universities around the country (and, increasingly, the world).

The organization recently held a conference at Syracuse University's Maxwell School, the most venerable public administration program in the country. The conference happens once every two years and this year attracted several hundred attendees. Compared to previous years, there was a sharp increase in participation from scholars outside the U.S. -- with large contingents from Korea, China and the Netherlands. (Why those countries? A lot of this is chance, that public management research happens to get established in a country).

Of all of these conferences I've been to over the years, I would say the average quality of papers at this one was clearly the highest. This is a tribute to the good work of Dave VanSlyke of Syracuse, who chaired the program committee for the conference and introduced a standard academic double-blind review process for choosing papers to be presented at the conference. It is also good news for practitioners, because the findings of academic research in public management can often have implications for improving public management practice. (However, virtually no practitioners were actually present at the conference. One exception was Chris Mihm, a senior official at the Government Accountability Office, and another person who is a recent public administration Ph.D. working for the Corps of Engineers.)
Among the interesting papers I heard presented at the conference:


Posted on Jun 08, 2011 at 12:09 PM0 comments

FBI Sentinel a test for agile development

As part of its effort to improve the performance of IT investments, the federal government aims to move from a traditional model of software development, in which everything is developed in one fell swoop, to the modern model of agile development.

With the agile approach, software is developed in small chunks, quickly providing users with incremental capabilities and letting them adapt to adapt to technological changes in closer to real time. This approach makes it possible to identify problems with projects before huge sums of money have been spent.

Agile development is a key feature of the Office of Management and Budget’s 25-point plan for improving IT management, and it was a central recommendation of last year's industry-sponsored panel on improving IT acquisition, which I co-chaired with Linda Gooden from Lockheed Martin (you can read the report here).


Posted on Jun 03, 2011 at 12:09 PM3 comments

Has Obama administration dropped the ball on performance-based acquisition?

I have always believed that, for improving government management, continuity is a real virtue. Of course, views are by no means unanimous about how best to improve government management -- there is a philosophical split between the "flog them to submission" crowd and those who believe in inspiring the government workforce. But compared with contentious policy areas such as taxes, Medicare or the war in Afghanistan, there's a lot more overlap between administrations about management questions.

Continuity is a virtue for two reasons. First, real management change takes time -- hit-and-run management improvement missions are almost sure to fail. Second, there exists a (not totally unjustified) cynicism among the career workforce about "flavors of the month" that political appointees introduce assembly-line fashion into the agencies they are chosen briefly to run. This cynicism itself reduces employee buy-in and thus the chances that an initiative will actually succeed.

On the day I started my job as administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy – under President Bill Clinton -- I asked my predecessor Al Burman what his three most important priorities as administrator had been. I then promised to do my best to continue to work on them.

One of the three was performance-based acquisition -- an effort Burman had inaugurated in 1990 to structure contracts for services around the goals to be achieved by the contractor, rather than telling the contractor how to do the work but not holding them responsible for any performance standards. This was a sensible approach. What the government cares about is achieving results, not how the contractor gets there. Requiring the contractor to do things a certain way but then not requiring that the results be attained seems (excuse my language) sort of ass-backwards. And if you set up performance standards but allow the contractor to determine how to get there, you open the way for innovative and/or cost-saving ways to reach the goal.

I continued Al's efforts – extracting a pledge from agencies to convert a number of existing contracts to performance-based (and documenting significant cost savings and equal or better performance comparing before and after) and rewriting the part of the Federal Acquisition Regulation on contracting for services to promote performance-based principles. The George W. Bush administration continued the effort, including performance targets for percentage of contracts that were performance-based. That may be a little hard to measure, but the sentiment was the right one, and the area got significant OFPP attention.

Surprisingly, after three administrations in a row promoting performance-based acquisition, the Obama administration has been close to silent on this. This is particularly strange given the administration's focus on performance measurement in government in general. With contractors so important in delivering many programs, one would think that promotion of performance-based contracting would be a high administration procurement priority. The administration also has not (as of yet) taken up the fight to re-introduce share-in-savings contracting, the most-dramatic form of performance-based contract. To be fair, though, it has embraced procurement contests, another variant of performance-based contracting.

Apparently the administration is not promoting this issue on the grounds that the problem has been solved -- that performance-based contracting is now institutionalized in the federal government. I think that anybody who knows what's going on in the agencies would regard that belief, to put it mildly, with skepticism.

Yes, there is more performance-based acquisition than in the past, but it is far from institutionalized. There are a bunch of practical problems, including training staff to develop performance metrics, evaluating proposals with different performance metrics and negotiating metric change in mid-stream (in a sole-source environment). And there are some larger systemic problems, outlined in a report on the topic a while ago from ASI Government, which promotes performance-based acquisition in government, involving governance of these contracts and post-award contract management.

Performance-based acquisition has been the flavor of a decade for three administrations. Especially in an environment where cost savings and performance improvements are crucial, we need to continue it into a fourth.

Posted on Jun 01, 2011 at 12:09 PM8 comments

Think hard, invent something, win a prize

I recently was at a lunch with two doctorate students at Harvard Business School, and I was surprised to learn that one of them was writing her dissertation on the use of contests by scientists at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston as a tool to help the agency solve scientific problems requiring significant innovation. These scientists, she discovered, have made contests a routine part of how they do research and development at Johnson, using private company to advertise the contests they are holding.
The basic idea behind a contest is that you establish some performance objective — the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency held one a few years ago in which the goal was an all-terrain vehicle that could navigate a tricky course in the desert — and offer a prize to the first person or group who submits an entry meeting the performance objective. I have been writing here in FCW about the idea of making greater use of contests as a procurement technique for years — first in 2004 — and, in a column at the beginning of the Obama administration in which I argued that greater use of contests was one of the top five ideas the administration should pursue.
Now the New York Times has discovered the issue, with a column in the business section by Steve Lohr titled "Change the World, and Win Fabulous Prizes." After providing a number of private-sector examples of contests companies have launched to develop various technology applications, the article notes that "perhaps the most far-reaching effort, however, comes from the federal government." With last September's launch of the website that provides links to agency-organized contests governmentwide and the passage last December of the America Competes Act authorizing prizes as much as $50 million, contests have finally come into their own in government.
The Times article quotes Todd Park, chief technology officer at the Health and Human Services Department, on the virtues of using contests as a procurement tool, compared with conventional procurement techniques. He told the Times, “You can access a whole universe of innovators, and you only pay for the result, unlike the usual procurement system.”


Posted on May 27, 2011 at 12:09 PM0 comments

Cooperation is in the eye of the beholder

I recently read a fascinating study in the scholarly journal "Organization Science" that found similarities and differences between American and Chinese cultures in workgroup settings.

The authors — Joshua Keller of Nanyang Business School in Singapore and Jeffrey Loewenstein of the University of Texas at Austin — set out to study behaviors that people interpret as showing cooperativeness. Broadly, the responses are more similar than different. Situations in which teams were rewarded as groups rather than individuals or where members are willing to give up their lunch breaks for an important group activity, for example, were seen as signs of cooperation to about the same extent in both countries.

Some of the differences fit with common views of differences between U.S. and Chinese cultures. For example, American respondents said openly discussing a team member’s mistake shows more cooperativeness, while the Chinese said the opposite.


Posted on May 25, 2011 at 12:09 PM5 comments

The 1,500 Commandments for contracting officers

I heard a fascinating factoid at a conference recently: A word search of the Federal Acquisition Regulation for expressions beginning with the phrase "The contracting officer shall..." returned something like 1,500 mentions. (And that does not count any additional "shalls" in FAR agency supplements.)  The speaker who mentioned this said that it is scarcely a wonder that government contracting officials hardly have time to do the regulatory basics of their jobs, let alone finding time to think about approaches to getting better deals for the government or structuring a good business relationship. There are simply too many commandments.
Henry Mintzberg, the McGill university management scholar who is a favorite of mine, has made the point that the problem with a very rule-bound organizational environment is that it becomes natural for employees to assume that following the rules, which is supposed to assure a competent minimum level of performance, actually constitutes their entire job -- that their job is done when they have followed the rules. With 1,500 "shalls" (obviously not all of them apply to every individual contracting official, especially in any given acquisition), it may be close to being true that all people have time to do is to follow the rules. More

Posted on May 19, 2011 at 12:09 PM13 comments

What makes a great schoolteacher?

I wrote in a recent post about how one of the wonderful things about being an academic — occasionally I am amazed that I am actually paid to do this job — is the opportunity to discover interesting new research on important issues about society, organizations and human behavior.

Recently, a group of 70 executive education students at Harvard’s Kennedy School program for federal GS-15s and colonels had a chance to get some similar exposure when they heard a presentation about what makes an effective schoolteacher. Given the problems we have with elementary and secondary education, this is an important question for everyone who cares about the future of our country.

My colleague Ron Ferguson gave the lunchtime presentation. He's involved in the research, on behalf of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Ferguson offered a list of what he called the seven Cs of teacher behavior in the classroom: caring, controlling, clarifying, challenging, captivating, conferring and consolidating.


Posted on May 12, 2011 at 12:09 PM0 comments

Osama bin Laden and Public Service Recognition Week

There are doubtless few outside the Beltway — and relatively few other than government employees — who are aware that this week (May 1-7) is Public Service Recognition Week, when we pause to think about the generally unheralded and unappreciated contributions of those who work for the government.

And of the small number who are aware of it, how many have thought about the fact that the recent success in the decade-long pursuit of Osama bin Laden occurred on the first day of this annual event?

The coincidence is significant because, of course, the Navy Seals and the other uniformed and civilian military and intelligence employees who accomplished that task are, in fact, government employees. But I suspect few Americans think of these people as govies.

Indeed, it often seems as if any time the government is involved in something seen as admirable or heroic, many people separate those doing the good deeds from the mental category of "government" — as if, by definition, government can't do good stuff. Recall the perhaps apocryphal stories of seniors telling politicians to "keep the government's hands off my Medicare."


Posted on May 04, 2011 at 12:09 PM1 comments

How to succeed at failure

Two opposing views exist about how the organizational culture of the federal government reacts to failure.

Among the general public, the common view is that government organizations don't care about failure, and there are never any consequences for people who fail. In common parlance, "there is no accountability" — a nice way of saying nobody got fired or sent to jail.

Inside government organizations and among many academics who study public management, the common view is the opposite. Government organizations are scared to death of bad headlines in the news and, hence, are too cautious. In this view of the culture of government, it is better to stay off the radar screen than to aim high and miss the mark.

People in a recent executive education class of mine at the Kennedy School — mostly federal GS-15s and colonels — brought that up. The conversation took place in the context of a discussion about situations in which people had voluntarily agreed to take on a performance goal they were not certain they could achieve. Whenever I ask students whether they have done that, the majority — usually 80 percent to 90 percent — say they have done so at least once.


Posted on Apr 29, 2011 at 12:09 PM5 comments

A truly effective Facebook scam :(

As I have written about before , scams are proliferating on Facebook, and it is scary that a number of them are really well done -- not like the opportunities to work with Nigerian "government officials" that everyone deletes in a nanosecond, or even the obvious ones with status updates from Facebook friends that ask you to click on a picture of an attractive woman stripping or something.
There is now a scam going around that has landed as a status update post on the Facebook pages of many Kennedy School students and actually caught a number of them. It invites you to link to a site that will take your picture and show you, by computer transformation, what you will look like when you are old. The post shows a picture of a gnarled old guy.
Based on Facebook chats I've seen since these phony status updates began proliferating a few days ago, a number of students have actually clicked through to the scam site. Many people who had their accounts hijacked to send out the phony update have posted warnings on Facebook urging friends not to click through. A number of students who fell for the scam or came close wrote that, for a lot of young people, the idea of seeing a computer image of yourself as an old person is very intriguing. This is what makes this scam so dangerous -- it displays good knowledge of human psychology. More

Posted on Apr 26, 2011 at 12:09 PM4 comments

Will students pay for news online?

A Facebook friend (Tom Stewart, former editor of the Harvard Business Review) posted a status update link to an article noting that The New York Times has attracted about 100,000 paid subscribers to its no-longer-free website in its first three months of operation. Considering that the Financial Times, a premier business fee-based website, has a total of about 225,000 subscribers after a number of years, the article’s author said the Times' numbers look pretty good. (The article gave no figure for the current number of subscribers to the online Wall Street Journal, but it is presumably larger.)

The New York Times allows you to read some articles free each day but requires a paid subscription for more.
By coincidence, I was sitting next to a student of mine at an event today and saw her reading The New York Times online, so I asked her whether she had subscribed. She said she’d won a free one-year subscription from Lincoln (the car company). She would be willing to subscribe, though, she added.
She then told me that about half of the Kennedy School master's degree students she knows have forked over the cash to pay for the Times online, and half have not. What are the others doing, I asked? It seems that all follow one or more news sources online, which is not surprising, given that these are public policy students, but nonetheless gratifying. She said that some of her friends were closely tracking the number of articles they accessed each day on the Times website, to keep under the number that allows you to continue free access. Some were gaming the system, she added, by using search engines for article titles or topics and being taken directly to the article, which apparently does not count against the free downloads numbers. (Times, take note?)


Posted on Apr 22, 2011 at 12:09 PM3 comments

Good advice on past-performance from Wartime Contracting Commission

 I've had many chances now, in print and in talks to government audiences, to express a mea culpa about a provision I agreed to while I was administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy back in the 1990s. It was 1994, and the government was embarking on efforts to make considerations of vendor past performance an important part of how we award contracts in government.

Members of my staff were concerned about the delicate status of the whole effort to have past performance considered, given worries that it was too "subjective" and might, God forbid, result in "favoring" incumbent contractors who had done a good job. So I agreed to regulatory language (FAR 42.1503b) as part of the regulatory changes to incorporate past-performance data into the procurement system that allowed a contractor dissatisfied with their past-performance rating to appeal and ask for a better one.

I worried at the time that this was a mistake that would chill honest ratings, and my worries have turned out to be justified. Now the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan has recommended, in their second interim report to Congress, that this regulatory provision be eliminated, at least for contingency contracting. (This proposal should be extended to all contracting, in my view, not just contingency contracting.)


Posted on Apr 20, 2011 at 12:09 PM1 comments

A discourse on the trials of the left-handed

Why is being a professor such a great job? There are a number of reasons, but one of the biggest is that your job is to learn new things all the time. If you are curious and open about the world, it's hard to beat this.

For almost all of the time I've taught at the Kennedy School, we have had a lunch every Wednesday at which a member of the faculty presents research he or she is working on. Because our faculty members do research on many fascinating topics — such as the impact of a pilgrimage to Mecca on the religious tolerance of Muslims or how performance in kindergarten is tied to success in later life — these weekly lunches are generally fun and mind-widening, especially because so many faculty members are working in areas so far from one's own.

This week, our presentation was by a young assistant professor named Josh Goodman, who works mostly on education policy issues. I have had a special fondness for Josh ever since he arrived two years ago because he has been generous in helping me with some methodological questions in my own research and because he grew up on the same street in Brooklyn where one of my daughters now lives.


Posted on Apr 15, 2011 at 12:09 PM4 comments

Improving the purchase card program

One of the most positive changes introduced into the procurement system during the 1990s was the government credit card, called a “purchase card.” In the days before the card, every purchase, even small ones on the order of $25, had to go through an agency’s contracting shop.

This meant users would have to fill out a requisition form explaining what they wanted, send it to the contracting office, wait until it got on top of the pile, perhaps answer questions about the item from a semi-clerical purchasing agent, and wait until the item arrived.

Miscommunications frequently led to the need to return the original product and start the process anew. Users often waited weeks or months to receive even minor items. Seventy percent of all procurement transactions were for less than $2,500.  Using the full procurement procedures for small purchases consumed as much as 40 percent of procurement staff time. The purchase card dramatically sped up delivery of simple commercial items to frontline civil servants while saving the government very significant administrative expenses. (The administrative cost of buying these small items was often greater than the cost of the items themselves.)
However, this very positive change came with one big downside: Many offices have been using the card to buy things at local retail stores. This is quick, but it condemns the U.S. government – the largest purchaser in the world – to paying the same retail prices available to any individual consumer coming in off the street! 
GSA, which manages the program, is now taking an excellent initiative based on the philosophy “if you can’t beat them, join them.”  Given that government customers are likely to continue using local stores, GSA has begun to move aggressively to provide purchase card users automatic discounted prices when using retail outlets that already have prenegotiated contracts or GSA schedules, whether or not the buyer even knows such contracts or discounts exist. So, for example, under the set of 16 blanket purchase agreements GSA has recently negotiated for office supplies, a government credit card holder will automatically get the discounted negotiated price on any item on the blanket purchase agreement at the retail outlets of any of the contract holders.


Posted on Apr 13, 2011 at 12:09 PM5 comments

How to make reverse auctions even better

Most of my life is the life of a regular professor (teaching, research and stuff), but there are a few companies -- not many -- in the federal marketplace with which I work. One is FedBid, the reverse auction provider for government, on whose advisory board I sit -- because their mission is to save the government money, and it's a mission which I truly support (especially in this budget environment).

I recently had two informal sessions at FedBid's headquarters in Vienna, Va. One was with a group of junior FedBid employees who interact at the front lines either with the government buyers who use FedBid to do reverse auctions or with the vendors who bid in these auctions. The other session was with the senior managers at the company.

The conversations showed me just how frequently vendors considering bidding on a government requirement point out problems with the product specs that have been posted online for the auction. One of the services a market-maker such as FedBid provides the government is help in getting out information about poor-quality requirements before it is too late -- before an inappropriate product has been delivered at an inappropriate price.
With the senior managers, I discussed two ideas for ways to increase the value reverse auctions provide the government. One idea is to implement an eBay/Amazon-style system to allow government customers to give quick and easy past performance feedback on purchases made through their system. I discussed this idea in a blog post a while ago, spurred by having seen that taxis in Beijing, China, were introducing an instant customer feedback system where customers could press a like or dislike button on leaving a taxi. Perhaps customers could simply vote thumbs up/thumbs down on their overall satisfaction, or maybe do one vote for delivery timeliness and other for product quality. The idea would be to keep it simple so there are lots of votes that can establish patterns.


Posted on Apr 08, 2011 at 12:09 PM3 comments

Spread this around: Fresh ideas from the front lines of contracting

I had a very fruitful and — dare I say — inspiring informal meeting with a group of contracting professionals at an agency today. I say inspiring because the group, ranging from new hires to some seasoned managers, was quite engaged in the mission of improving the value contracting delivers to government missions, including the current imperative of contributing to deficit reduction. I put “Spread this around” in the header of this post because I think they presented a number of ideas that could be used elsewhere in the government.

One of the themes that came up during the discussion was frustration with technical folks who were good at what they do technically but had poor writing skills and a poor ability to express a requirement in words (or, when need be, in formulas). One contracting professional described patient efforts to sit down with such people and walk them slowly through the effort. It turned out, however, that in this organization, two people who had had experience on the engineering and contracting sides of the house had volunteered for assignments where their full-time job was to serve as a support to program/contracting teams in helping to get technical requirements in good shape.


Posted on Apr 01, 2011 at 12:09 PM3 comments

Share-in-savings contracting coming back?

My colleague Matthew Weigelt recently wrote an article about share-in-savings contracting. Tom Davis, the former Northern Virginia Congressman and moderate Republican leader in the House, had noted in a speech that government needs to look for innovative contracting methods to get work done in lean times.

The basic idea of share-in-savings contracting is that the government pays a contractor fully, or partly, in the form of giving the contractor a share of the savings the contracted effort generates. No savings means no (or limited) payment, while big savings means big payments. This ultimate form of results-based contracting should be part of the government's arsenal even in good times, but, as Davis noted, in these times it is particularly appropriate.

Government is doing some share-in-savings contracting now. One example is doing a phone inventory to identify unused phone lines, with the contractor getting a share of the money saved by canceling those lines. Another example is contracting debt collection on government loans, with the contractor receiving a proportion of loan repayments. One could imagine this in fraud detection efforts as well.


Posted on Mar 29, 2011 at 12:09 PM4 comments

Report from Sweden: Spring is in the air

I have been in Sweden for a few days, returning home from Israel. The people of Sweden are obsessed with issues of light and darkness, and cold and warmth -- not surprising since in the middle of the winter the sun doesn't rise until 10 a.m. and in the middle of the summer it is as bright as mid-day by 2 am. Perhaps because it is so cold, and perhaps because they are so anxious for winter to end, in Swedish consciousness “spring” is in the air as soon as it has started getting lighter and there are a few days in a row where temperatures are over freezing. So the Swedes are talking a lot about the arrival of spring these days. Indeed, I saw an interesting factoid in the newspaper that, in a survey several years ago, Swedes voted "first day of spring" as their favorite word! (In Swedish, with its Germanic construction of lapping concepts together into one long word, "first day of spring" is indeed one word – vardagsjamning, which literally means "the spring day when day and night are equal."


Posted on Mar 25, 2011 at 12:09 PM0 comments

More notes from Israel -- Coca Cola, Purim and struggle

The amount of Coca-Cola people drink in Israel is stupendous. Even at moderately fancy restaurants, one will see a third of the people drinking Coke. Elsewhere, it is ubiquitous. Often, people share a one-liter bottle. At my meetings here, bottles of Coke were always available. (By contrast, the bottled-water craze does not seem to have come here to any great extent.)

I asked a friend about this impressive Coke consumption, and got an interesting answer:  During the decades when Arab countries refused to do business with firms that traded with Israel, Coke established itself in Israel – sacrificing its business in the whole Arab world -- and Israelis gratefully remember this. Pepsi made the opposite choice, and to this day is common in Arab countries but not in Israel.
Israelis these days have been celebrating Purim, which in the U.S at least is a fairly minor holiday in the Jewish calendar. The day commemorates how, during the Biblical exile to Babylon, Jews were saved from an extermination plot by Haman, thanks to the efforts of the Jewish wife of the Persian king.


Posted on Mar 23, 2011 at 12:09 PM0 comments

Back to Israel

I am back in Israel, chairing an outside evaluation of university public-policy programs. As soon as I got on the highway from the airport to Jerusalem, I immediately noticed how green everything was compared with my previous trips last June and December. Like California, Israel basically has a desert climate, which keeps the ground pretty brown and dusty for large parts of the year, with a rainy season in winter that then makes things green again for a while. There are, however, fewer wildflowers than in California, though there are some.

My first day in Jerusalem I had lunch with a former student who now works as a foreign service officer at our consulate in Jerusalem. It's a unique U.S. consulate because it is in effect our nonembassy embassy to the Palestinian Authority.  Most of the consulate's work is political and economic reporting about the West Bank and Gaza, not the typical consular work of visas and help for stranded Americans. Interestingly, because of this, the consulate reports directly to Washington, not to the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, which covers Israel. This is an amazing first posting for a new Foreign Service Officer who graduated from the Kennedy School less than two years ago. It requires not only great skills at gathering and analyzing information but at negotiating the complex linguistic and protocol issues of this part of the world.


Posted on Mar 16, 2011 at 12:09 PM4 comments

Changes afoot as GS-15s get younger

I regularly teach in an executive education program for federal GS-15s and colonels that we conduct three times a year at the Kennedy School. Three or four years ago, I had a student who really stood out from the rest. Amidst a sea of 50-somethings, he was under 35, a GS-15 at the Department of Energy.

I had seen people that young in the course on occasion, but they were agency attorneys, who enter the government at fairly high grade levels and can rise pretty quickly to GS-15, sometimes with no supervisory responsibilities. This young man, however, was not an attorney.

He was smart and committed. He came from a poor background and was the first ever in his family to go to college. In a tribute to meritocracy in the government, people quickly noticed just how talented he was, and he had risen just about as fast as humanly possible inside his organization.
Since meeting that participant several years ago, I have been noting a growing number of younger faces -- pepole in their 30s and early 40s -- in this exec ed class. But I think the class going on right now suggests the government is moving towards a tipping point in the generational transformation in the senior ranks of the career civil service. I am guessing that half of this group is younger than 40 or maybe just barely older.
It will be interesting to see what impact the generational transition has for agency management and performance. There are some obvious differences between the young managers and their older counterparts.  Unsurprisingly, they are more comfortable with technology. Half of this current class is on Facebook, and this class (and some other recent ones) has set up class Facebook pages that help participants to stay in touch after the program ends. That has to be helpful in fulfilling the goals of the program, which is to build ties among people with similar interests across agencies. 


Posted on Mar 10, 2011 at 12:09 PM9 comments

Government should adopt instant feedback features

In my last blog post, about my visit to Beijing, I said I had read in a newspaper while there that the Beijing city government is proposing to introduce a touch screen inside taxi cars so customers can rate driver service in real time. Just before customers gets out of the cab, they press a button to indicate whether they were happy with the service. A similar button exists at the Singapore airport allowing people to rate the service of passport officials.

Modern distributed IT allows many such easy and quick point-of-service rating opportunities. Think, of course, about the customer satisfaction rating systems that both Amazon and eBay use. The Facebook "Like" function is another example. This approach is easy and done in real time, which is the key to its success. There are scads of opportunities to gather performance information for government through expanded use of this approach.


Posted on Mar 07, 2011 at 12:09 PM7 comments

More Beijing impressions

[Editor’s note: Steve Kelman is visiting Beijing for the first time and reporting his impressions of China’s capital.]

The Beijing city government is proposing to introduce a touch screen inside taxi cars so customers can rate driver service in real time. This seems like a really nice idea. I have written earlier about a system at the Singapore airport where people push a button rating the service of passport officials. These kinds of real-time customer service ratings are really promising, and we should be looking to introduce more of them in the U.S.
The pollution in Beijing has been nothing short of disgusting. Two of the days were described as "sunny" in the weather report. And, when you looked at the sky, you could indeed see a sun. However, not only was there not a trace of blue in the sky, but in addition to the slimy gray above, the air at ground level was gray and murky, producing very low visibility.


Posted on Mar 02, 2011 at 12:09 PM6 comments

Beijing impressions

After several previous trips to China, I am finally, for the first time, visiting Beijing.

Over the past few years I have read a number of books on the history and development of the city, but I will say that the visual impression has been very different from what I expected. Having read about the enormous destruction of the traditional city -- some of it right after the Communists took over, when city walls and the traditional north-south line of bell and drum towers were dismantled, and a lot of it in the runup to the Olympics in 2008 -- I was expecting an Asian cookie-cutter city (of which they are many) ... endless streets of characterless high rise apartments and office buildings, punctuated only by the occasional new trophy office building and, of course, the expanse of Tiananmen Square, with its mixture of the old Forbidden City and 1950s-era Stalinist monuments, in the middle.

I was wrong. This city has a unique feel, definitely not cookie-cutter and very different from its sister and rival city, Shanghai. The first thing I noticed was the large number of incredibly wide boulevards, the product of Communist-era urban planning, but more than any city in Russia or Eastern Europe. The most amazing of these, and a truly fascinating and incredible -- if spooky -- experience, is Chang An Jie. It translates to "Long Peace Street" and is the ancient name of the city of Xi'an, an early Chinese capital.


Posted on Feb 23, 2011 at 12:09 PM4 comments

An on-location report on youth protests in Beijing

I am in Beijing, China. Monday morning Beijing time (Sunday evening U.S. time), after coming back from breakfast, I logged onto the New York Times website to check news from the Middle East. (This website is in my experience never blocked in China.) To my surprise, on the home page -- with the message that the story had been posted only 8 minutes earlier -- was a story titled "Chinese Security Officials Respond to Call for Protests."

Of course I immediately opened the story, to discover that on Chinese versions of Twitter -- Twitter itself is blocked in China, but there are a number of very popular local Twitter-like sites, and the phenomenon called "micro-blogs" (weibo) has received a lot of attention in the official Chinese media -- calls had appeared for people to assemble at 2 p.m. at 13 sites in China, including a McDonald's outlet in Beijing and a Starbucks outlet in Shanghai, to launch a "Jasmine Revolution" in China.


Posted on Feb 20, 2011 at 12:09 PM3 comments

Tight budget revives contracting professional debate

As part of the effort to cut government budgets, the demand for cost savings from contracting has raised again one of the oldest issues about the role of contracting professionals in government: To what extent is the role of contracting professionals to serve the mission customers on whose behalf they buy? To what extent is their role to serve taxpayers in general?

Demands that contracting contribute to cost savings in a tight budget environment raise the visibility of the "serve taxpayers in general" approach to the role of contracting.
There was an older culture in contracting -- which probably reached its height in the 1980s -- that saw the role of contracting as being to protect taxpayer interests, often conceived of as being in opposition to the desires of program customers. In the most dramatic version of this view, program customers paid no attention to what things cost, were too close to