In blame game, our leaders aren't running for cover

During my years in Washington, D.C., the single most common question I was asked by government procurement personnel particularly in the Defense Department went something like this: 'What happens when we use our best judgment and the inspector general comes in afterward and criticizes us for ma

During my years in Washington, D.C., the single most common question I was asked by government procurement personnel— particularly in the Defense Department— went something like this: "What happens when we use our best judgment and the inspector general comes in afterward and criticizes us for making a mistake? How do we know that we're not going to be left hanging out to dry while our leaders run for cover?" It's a question that came from procurement folks, but it could have come from any career person in government deciding whether to go down the beaten path or stick his neck out by trying something new.

My response was twofold. First, I personally promised to come to the defense of any career employee who made an honest mistake while trying to find a better way to promote the public interest. Second, I reminded the person asking the question that folks in government had to be willing to stand up tall and defend their decisions to use their heads instead of just slavishly following old ways, even if that meant they sometimes made mistakes. DOD's leadership in this area and its willingness to back its own procurement personnel was put to the test after a highly publicized DOD IG report revealed that sole-source spare-parts purchasing by the department resulted in some dramatic overpayments [FCW, April 13].

How might DOD leadership have reacted to the IG report? There are several nonconstructive responses they could have made. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) specifically requested in a letter to Defense Secretary William Cohen that heads roll. In response, DOD leadership could have blamed the Defense Logistics Agency procurement personnel who paid the excessive prices, although it should be noted that in some cases, the contracting people recorded in the files that the prices were unreasonable and were only being accepted because airplanes would soon be grounded unless the parts were bought. DOD's leadership could have made middle managers the scapegoats. But it didn't do that. It didn't run for cover. It stood by its people.

An equally nonconstructive response would have been to become defensive and deny that there was a problem.The proper response to the spare-parts problems that the IG uncovered was not to blame individuals but to figure out what went wrong and correct the problems. That's what the idea of continuous improvement is about— learning from mistakes and taking corrective action. The spirit of continuous improvement is central to keeping procurement reform— and government reinvention in general— moving forward.

That's what the DOD leadership did. It didn't deny that there was a problem or act in a defensive way, except to note that the much larger gains from commercial buying need to be kept in mind. It sought to deal with the issue by aggressively negotiating for a hefty refund from the offending vendor and to deal with the underlying problem by improving training and consciousness about sole-source commercial buys.

The DOD IG should be commended for its role in the affair. The office avoided the temptation to use leaks and bombshells as a way of communicating with the larger department. The IG kept DOD informed and worked with the department on corrective measures. The IG report even included examples of commercial buying successes. Friends of procurement reform should thank the IG for performing the public service of calling our collective attention to a problem that needed to be addressed.

The bottom line: Amid the bad news in the spare-parts story, there are very important underlying positive developments that illustrate the progress we're making in dealing with innovation and change. And that's very good news for friends of good government.

-- Kelman was the administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy from 1993 to 1997. He is now Weatherhead Professor of Public Management at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.