Kelman: Leadership, at long last

Safavian understands the needs of and threats to a value-oriented system.

The procurement and information technology communities are in desperate need of some good news. Every headline about real or purported scandal distracts government officials from using contracting to get the best value for agencies.

We need to make sure that the ethical constraints of the procurement system are in order. But we shouldn't lose perspective about the ethical state of procurement in the federal government.

I recently had breakfast with a foreign-born high-tech executive who mentioned that in 20 years of doing business with our government, he had never been approached about giving a bribe — while abroad, this happens all the time.

A system that pays attention only to its constraints and not to its substantive goals can never be judged a success.

The main flaw of the system before procurement reform was ignoring mission goals, a problem that could return.

But some good news is brewing that should encourage beleaguered troops on the contracting front lines. Signs are growing that David Safavian, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy in the Office of Management and Budget, understands the needs of and threats to a value-oriented procurement system.

Safavian still must spend much of his time working on the Bush administration's competitive sourcing initiative. But he says he is devoting more and more time to procurement policy, which he often addresses in his speeches.

Safavian has two good priorities: strategic sourcing and the acquisition workforce.

Under his leadership, the Bush administration looks poised to push strategic sourcing, the effort to maximize the government's immense buying power to get better prices, contract terms and services from major vendors, especially IT vendors.

Strategic sourcing is valuable substantively and politically. The benefits of strategic sourcing, particularly lower prices, are easy for members of Congress and the public to understand.

(Full disclosure: I do some consulting work for Ariba, which competes in the strategic sourcing support market.)

Safavian's second priority, the acquisition workforce, is also important. Our workforce needs training and support to fulfill its role as the government's business adviser. And there is no way a bureaucracy-obsessed system can attract talented young people to replace retiring federal employees. Safavian even appears to realize that the procurement workforce is currently too small for its missions.

Beyond this, Safavian brings a tone to his job that we desperately need. He is asking procurement workers not only to get it right, but also to know that if they make an honest mistake while trying to achieve the mission, he will back them up.

We should support Safavian in his efforts to exercise leadership in a tough time.

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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