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By Steve Kelman

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How to think about new policy proposals – feedback on my feedback

In recent blogs, I have suggested a number of ideas for specific ways to improve the procurement system – one is a way to encourage small businesses who currently don’t sell to government to enter the federal marketplace and the other is a way to encourage contractors on fixed-priced contracts to share some of their cost savings on those contracts with the government. I made these two suggestions in fairly rapid succession partly because I actually think that both are, on balance, good ideas that would improve the procurement system – but also as a way to encourage others in the system to get their thinking caps on and come up with ideas of their own. With the importance of government contracting, and the current budget environment, the procurement system can use good ideas for improvement.
The reaction to both suggestions from blog commenters was mixed. Fine. However, I would like in a generic way to respond to at least some of the comments by the critics, because I believe my perspective provides some guidelines for how we ought to think about new policy ideas in general.
First, and most importantly, when evaluating a new idea, the standard against which it should be judged is not nirvana – few ideas have no disadvantages or downsides – but in comparison with problems the status quo creates. The correct question is always, “Compared to what?” If an idea has problems, tote these up against problems with the way things work now.
Second, Teresa Amabile at Harvard Business School did some fascinating research a number of years ago where she presented different groups of experimental subjects a book review. The versions were almost identical, but one group got a version with critical or negative adjectives, while the other read a version using favorable or positive adjectives. She found that subjects who read the version with critical words rated the review as more insightful and the reviewer smarter than did the subjects who read the same review with favorable words. She labeled what she discovered as “negativity bias,” and it may be hard-wired in people. People may feel smarter if they can come up with criticisms.

It was interesting to see that one critic of my ideas on the use of past performance for cost savings on fixed-price contracts idea rejected the proposal arguing that it would have no effect on contractor behavior, while another rejected it believing it would terrify contractors into submission to the government. Maybe those reading the comments think those writers are smart, but obviously that doesn’t necessarily produce useful policy or management dialogue.

Lastly, although I recognize the blogosphere is not known as a font of gentle or respectful language, some of the expressions used in some of the comments were, I think, problematic. I am a big boy: I can take it when a commenter writes “a three percent 'kickback' for future work sounds a bit like payola to me” or “I cannot tell you how awful I think the ‘fee’ return idea is. Truly awful.”

But this kind of language can bully or intimidate people from presenting new ideas, particularly if those with the new ideas are young or in a junior position compared to the person using words such as these.  This kind of language in organizations or teams is an enemy of useful deliberation about ideas, and it is an excellent way to discourage new ideas from being presented in the first place. Younger or lower-ranking people, in a world of this kind of rhetoric, are likely just to say to themselves, “Why bother?” and return to their cubbyholes. This is exactly what government does not need.

Posted on Jul 17, 2012 at 12:09 PM

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Reader comments

Tue, Nov 6, 2012 EricE

@Vern Edwards:"...The solution is to do a better job of requirements planning..." You could have stopped right there, Vern. Executives always want savings from squeezing the vendors and trying to get blood from a stone. However, the best way to save money is not spend it in the first place. How many of us know of procurements that were either entirely unecessary, or later it was revealed they were inappropriate because the government fully didn't understand what it really needed? Program folks love to throw stones at aquisitions folks, but garbage in/garbage out. Bravo and keep up the good fight!

Sun, Jul 22, 2012 Jaime Gracia Washington, DC

Steve - First, I for one certainly respect your ideas and opinions, although I sometimes do not agree with them. I did not agree that the 3% past performance "bonus" you discussed was a good idea. I also had a subsequent conversation on this topic via GovLoop, and the discussion was productive. Regarding the idea, there is too much opportunity for "gaming," without our clearly defined goals and value for contractors to give up that profit. FFP requires risk transfer, and that requires a "premium" to assume it. Of course that does not mean rip off the government, so proper negotiations, and upfront market research and cost analysts should be conducted to ensure price reason bales and fair pricing. I think Vern Edwards is spot on. Fix people, forget policy. Regretfully, some take the anonymity of the Internet to coarsen the discussion, as opposed to productive conversation and expressing themselves in a manner that helps improve the topic. If I had a nickel for ever negative comment I have received in my work, I would have a tidy sum. I find them amusing, as those comments are never by a "person," and are rarely productive. Keep expressing your ideas!

Wed, Jul 18, 2012 Don Mansfield

Dr. Kelman's discussion of the Harvard Business School study is interesting and it may explain some of the beliefs of the commenters. Dr. Kelman may be interested in a different study by Professor Joe Forgas of the University of South Wales. According to Professor Forgas: "Whereas positive mood seems to promote creativity, flexibility, cooperation, and reliance on mental shortcuts, negative moods trigger more attentive, careful thinking, paying greater attention to the external world." This may explain why the positive Dr. Kelman has maintained that his idea about sharing savings in return for a high past performance rating is a good idea, despite the fact, as one commenter pointed out, THE GOVERNMENT DOES NOT EVALUATE COST CONTROL UNDER FIXED-PRICE CONTRACTS. Unfortunately, that fact, which Dr. Kelman has not addressed, undermines his entire proposal. I'm all for innovation and trying to find ways to improve the acquisition system. I think the some of the innovations we saw in the 1990s under the auspices of Dr. Kelman were of great benefit. However, we need to be cautious of innovation without adequate deliberation.

Wed, Jul 18, 2012 BeatendownCS

Agree 100% with Mr. Edwards. And I am sure there are a lot more that agree with his reasoning.

Wed, Jul 18, 2012

I want to preface my comments by saying that I respect both of you very highly and follow both of your blogs:) From the acquisiton world I intimately work in - I have to say I agree with Vern on this one - in my mind it's the classic spider versus cobwebs! I think Vern has put the 'spot light' on the 'spider'!!

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