Kelman: The comeback kid

Two significant events for the procurement and information technology communities took place recently, both involving David Drabkin, the General Services Administration's smart and results-oriented senior procurement executive.

First, Drabkin announced he would be leaving procurement to become a senior program manager for the president's global AIDS initiative. Second, Drabkin rescinded his decision and announced he would stay at GSA.

These announcements show both the perils and hopes for sustaining and advancing a cost-conscious, mission-oriented procurement system during the difficult period we are weathering.

The announcement of Drabkin's departure had been an ominous sign about the impact of the current environment. Drabkin has been a leader in developing innovative contracting strategies, such as those used in the Pentagon renovation. He has been a vocal advocate of improving how officials at the Defense Department's acquisition reform office conduct business. An environment in which officials asked him to report for duty as a member of the procurement police is hardly as stimulating and mission-oriented.

Significant new hiring will be needed in procurement during the next few years. The question is who will agency officials find to fill these jobs. We want procurement professionals who are results-oriented, while, of course, behaving with ethics and integrity. The danger is if the system returns to focus on compliance rather than results, it will attract only bureaucrats. At a time when good government is more dependent than ever on successful contracting, this is exactly what we do not need.

Compare the following two (oversimplified) job descriptions for a procurement position:

n Serve as business adviser to program managers, helping government develop smart strategies to maximize the contribution of contractors to mission success.

n Assure the compliance of program managers and contractors with procurement rules.

I interact with many students. The first job description has a shot at attracting some of them. The second will attract few. Anybody attracted to the second job would be more likely to want real law enforcement, such as the FBI or an inspector general's office.

Drabkin's departure would have been a harbinger of a hurricane that could cause long-term damage to procurement. The fact he's sticking it out tells a story of hope. The hope is that many committed procurement professionals are devoted to promoting the public good, even in tough times.

Drabkin is not staying because he expects this next period to be fun. He is staying because he is committed to doing the right thing by government and its missions. He deserves the thanks of all of us.

Drabkin will be responsible for GSA's Get It Right campaign. I believe some version of the campaign is necessary because we have not been paying enough attention to following the procurement system's rules. But we need to be careful about the message the campaign sends the workforce, lest we return to an era of focus on constraints rather than mission. Drabkin's continued service increases the chances we will get it right. n

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


"Kelman: In or out of house" [Federal Computer Week, September 13, 2004]

"Kelman: A time for statesmanship" [Federal Computer Week, Aug. 2, 2004]

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