Kelman: The not-so-obvious lesson

A tale of procurement woe shows that contracting officials need to be trusted business advisers

If you don’t read the New York Times regularly, you may have missed a recent major investigative report on problems with an Army contract to provide ammunition to Afghanistan’s  army. The Times story, headlined “Supplier Under Scrutiny on Arms for Afghans,” was enormous — 4,430 words that started on the front page and occupied an entire inside page.

The story concerned a small contractor that had won a major contract to supply the ammunition, and lots of what it delivered was inferior or nonfunctional, often coming from expired Eastern European stashes. The message was that the government had been ripped off by this unscrupulous firm, part of a general theme of waste, fraud and abuse in contracting. I am sure the lesson virtually all readers got is that we need more controls over contracting officials and unscrupulous contractors to prevent such fraud.

Unlike when it buys for itself, the story states, when the Army buys for a third party, it does not establish specifications in the contract. Rather, the Army leaves that to the customer, in this case, the Afghan army. And “the customer…did not set age or testing requirements,” so the contractor could provide inferior product without violating the contract. The government has now suspended the contractor for a violation not of quality standards but of a provision against sourcing ammunition in China.

My reading of the story is completely different from the impression the writer was trying to create. What seems to have happened is that Army contracting officials followed the rules, but they didn’t show good business judgment.

They followed the rules: When the United States is procuring on behalf of a third party, the third party, not the United States, establishes specs for what it wants.

They showed poor business judgment: That normally is a sensible rule, but in the case of Afghanistan’s army, it didn’t make sense because the Afghans don’t necessarily know how to establish specs for such a contract. Contracting officials should have realized that the rule didn’t make sense here, and they needed to take more responsibility for specs than the rule required.

The story reminded me of something I observed when entering government in 1993. Most agencies were then buying commercial software in shrink-wrapped packages rather than getting more economical site licenses. Here also, nobody was violating any rules. The contracts were competed, and government probably got the lowest prices anywhere for shrink-wrapped software. But government was following poor business practice.

What we tried to do during 1990s procurement reforms was encourage contracting folks to realize their job consisted of more than following rules.

My lesson from the munitions story is different from the one the Times suggests. The solution is not more controls.  

A control environment encourages people to think that their job is just to follow the rules -- which is the opposite of what we need here. Instead, we need more of a sense that contracting officials should be business advisers.

Kelman ( is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

more of a sense that contracting officials should be business advisers. ()

About the Author

Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. Connect with him on Twitter: @kelmansteve

FCW in Print

In the latest issue: Looking back on three decades of big stories in federal IT.


  • Anne Rung -- Commerce Department Photo

    Exit interview with Anne Rung

    The government's departing top acquisition official said she leaves behind a solid foundation on which to build more effective and efficient federal IT.

  • Charles Phalen

    Administration appoints first head of NBIB

    The National Background Investigations Bureau announced the appointment of its first director as the agency prepares to take over processing government background checks.

  • Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.)

    Senator: Rigid hiring process pushes millennials from federal work

    Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said agencies are missing out on younger workers because of the government's rigidity, particularly its protracted hiring process.

  • FCW @ 30 GPS

    FCW @ 30

    Since 1987, FCW has covered it all -- the major contracts, the disruptive technologies, the picayune scandals and the many, many people who make federal IT function. Here's a look back at six of the most significant stories.

  • Shutterstock image.

    A 'minibus' appropriations package could be in the cards

    A short-term funding bill is expected by Sept. 30 to keep the federal government operating through early December, but after that the options get more complicated.

  • Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaks at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco

    DOD launches new tech hub in Austin

    The DOD is opening a new Defense Innovation Unit Experimental office in Austin, Texas, while Congress debates legislation that could defund DIUx.

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group