A time for statesmanship

In the wake of headlines about Iraqi interrogators paid for through information technology contracts and problems with noncompeted orders on contract vehicles, officials from the General Services Administration and the Defense Department have announced a "Get It Right" campaign to ensure compliance with rules governing such purchases.

The campaign is necessary. The rules are simple, and people who follow them can still buy in a timely manner. But this is still a very dangerous moment for procurement. Words such as "compliance" have a history -- particularly for contracting veterans.

It is a loaded word. It was a watchword of the system in the era before procurement reform. During that time, procurement people were taught to believe their job was to serve as a police force for program managers and contractors -- for some, becoming unpopular for constantly saying no gave them a badge of honor.

Procurement people were given the message that their job was to make sure the rules were followed, and that their jobs were done only when the rules were observed -- even if the buying strategy made no sense, if the contract took two years to award and if the vendor failed to satisfy the customer.

Given that history, it would be easy for folks on the front lines to over-interpret the message coming out of the "Get It Right" campaign to mean that we are heading back to that era. In fact, with no conscious effort to counteract over-interpretation, people in the field will read the message that way. That's why this moment is so dangerous.

Right now, a heavy responsibility rests on the shoulders of our two most senior career procurement leaders: David Drabkin, GSA's deputy associate administrator for acquisition policy, and Deidre Lee, director of Defense procurement and acquisition policy.

We are lucky they are our leaders, because both are dedicated and progressive. They agree that we cannot accept violations of simple rules and that good procurement is about much more than following the rules.

In an e-mail dialogue with Drabkin and Lee, we all agreed that the three top priorities for procurement are: to get best value, to provide timely service and to follow the rules -- in that order. The best way to put this is: Get best value and provide timely service while following the rules -- a formulation similar to that in Part l of the Federal Acquisition Regulation.

In this environment, however, it's not enough for Drabkin and Lee to know in their hearts that they believe the message needs to be broader than "follow the rules." They need to make sure a cowed procurement community hears that message. Drabkin has made a good start in his e-mail message to GSA employees where he notes that some have the "impression that this is somehow a negative, anti-reform initiative. It is not. ... This is an effort to make sure that the reforms we created actually work the way we intended them to work and to prevent folks from forcing us back to the bad old days."

The message people in the field hear now will be remembered long after the headlines are gone. If our leaders don't get that right, people will be afraid to emerge from their foxholes ever again.

This is a time for statesmanship.

Kelman is a professor of public management at Harvard University's Kennedy School and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. He can be reached at steve_kelman@harvard.edu.

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