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By Steve Kelman

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One size fits all?

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In a recent Washington Technology column, titled "Beware of the tyranny of one size fits all," Stan Soloway warns against the tendency -- in government procurement and by extension in other areas of government management and even policy -- to encourage or even mandate a single approach to various challenges the government faces.

I have known Soloway around the government procurement world since the 1990s, when I was in government and he ran one of the professional services trade associations. He later went on to lead acquisition reform at the Defense Department in the late 1990s, and then to run, for 15 years, the Professional Services Council, which he left last year to start his own consulting business. Reading the column was a trip down memory lane from procurement reform and the "reinventing government" movements of the 1990's, bringing back discussions and arguments from that period that are very much still relevant today, but which have in recent years faded from attention.

Soloway notes that a defining feature of reinventing government in general, and 1990s-era procurement reform in particular, was to move away from one-size fits all to a situation where career managers and frontline employees were encouraged to figure out what decision made most sense in a specific situation. The idea was that a general rule produced bad decisions in many specific cases.

Also, there was a feeling that the tyranny of the general rule was insufficiently respectful of the abilities and desires of people to decide for themselves -- that it took away from their humanity. One of the first reform steps in DOD, Soloway notes, was a memo from then-Secretary of Defense William Perry stating there should no longer be a presumption that government-unique military specifications should be used for weapons systems. Instead, Perry call for a case-by-case determination of whether milspecs were needed or commercial specs were more cost-effective. The words we used then to describe what we wanted the federal workforce to do when making decisions were "judgment," "discretion," and "using your head."

Soloway sees a move in recent years back to one size fits all. "Unfortunately," he writes, "specific, mandatory certifications and specifications, many of them government-unique, have actually been making a worrisome comeback in recent years. …. From cost accounting to capability maturity models, from contract type to acquisition strategies, we see too many procurements that send a clear message: Those who haven't done it our way, or are not doing it a certain way, need not apply."

He also quotes Jennifer Pahlka, founder of Code for America, warning against "the tyranny of misapplied doctrine" -- in this case, a one-size-fits-all attitude toward agile development. "Agile," according to Pahlka, "is one useful doctrine, not the doctrine."

The view we had at the time, though, was controversial. Many in politics, the public and the media were what might be described as government workforce pessimists, who believe the typical fed is neither very smart nor very motivated, and may even be venal.

Asked to allow decisions that depart from one-size-fits-all by exercising judgment, the workforce pessimists worry that feds would make poor decisions that would be worse than those dictated by one size fits all. They believe it is less dangerous to put up with the shortcomings of one size fits all than to accept the results of greater discretion.

Workforce pessimism is associated with what New York University Professor Paul Light calls the "watchful eye" approach to government management, where inspectors general and auditors must check what feds do to catch bad behavior. A heavy reliance on rules, including ones that are of the one-size-fits-all variety, is part of the watchful eye toolkit.

We in the 1990s reinventing government and procurement reform movements were something of workforce optimists -- have auditors and IG's to patrol against venality, like the view that laws should generally seek to stop bad behavior but not necessarily to require what some would see as good behavior. Absent venality, bet on the ability of the workforce -- especially with encouragement and training, and especially as education levels in the workforce rose -- to make more decisions that were improvements over one size fits all than those that made things worse.

These debates have receded in recent years. The workforce optimists have recently chosen to focus on encouraging people to use their heads to develop innovations in government practices and not spent much energy on encouraging people to use their heads to make better decisions in their regular jobs. Since innovation, unlike decision-making, is not going to be a constant activity, eliminating the earlier focus on one-size-fits-all decision-making gives the discussion a less-central importance in organizational life.

One way out of a human judgment/one-size-fits-all dichotomy is provided by artificial intelligence, as discussed in my last blog. If you have enough data, decision recommendations can be developed through artificial intelligence that are adapted to the facts of the individual situation, avoiding one size fits all -- though not having people make the decision themselves. (It is possible of course to frame artificial intelligence solutions as mere suggestions or alternatives. However, enough data for AI is very often not available. Another a way out of this dichotomy is to develop some simple guidelines for a few kinds of situations where one approach should be used and ones where another should be. The Federal Acquisition Regulation tries to provide such guidelines to allow for both direction and discretion in whether to award a fixed-price or cost-based contract. However, there is a tendency in these kinds of situations, especially if the cultural expectation is one size fits all, for such guidelines to degenerate into one-size-fits-all rules.

In the absence of the kind of data that makes artificial intelligence or other computational solutions to decision problems possible, we are left with a choice between promoting, or even requiring, some version of one size fits all on one side or promoting the ability of civil servants in more situations to use their judgment, based on their experiences but with very imperfect information. Which way we go will depend on some pretty fundamental judgments about the knowledge and motivation of the government workforce. I suspect that deep down I am inclined towards workforce optimism because it more respects the opportunity for employees to be fuller human beings than an order that chains them to one-size-fits-all rules. Soloway deserves praise for bringing this question back on the governance agenda.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Oct 06, 2016 at 8:33 AM

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Reader comments

Thu, Oct 27, 2016 Bob Stone LA Mayor's Office

Steve--Your nomenclature, workforce optimists and pessimists, is brilliant. It clarifies the decision process: How on earth can we say, "Here's what is to be accomplished," without the belief (optimism) that the workforce is up to the job?

Mon, Oct 10, 2016 Tom Duffy

And it's not just in the areas mentioned. FAR provisions and suggested policies have been added that are more germane to major procurements (weapons and others), but are unnecessary for services which account for what--70% of the contracts awarded. DoD policy favors discussions over awards without discussions; and the FAR, for example, requires the KO to say--discussions are over, before asking for final proposal revisions. There is no need for this provision in probably 90+ percent of the contracts awarded. Plus DOD and the services have peer reviews coming out the kazoo. I fear that the acquisition community has succeeded in putting on a lot of shackles on contracting officers--which is the antithesis of the goals of the 1990s Section 800 panel and FASA. Let's hope the new panel can break free and allow KOs more freedom from micromanagement. But with a number of former senior acquisition folks on the panel, I don't have my hopes up. I do want to give a shout out though for Mr. Halleck. He has been a breathe of fresh air.

Fri, Oct 7, 2016

Amen to that. Unfortunately the pendulum has swung back to pre-reinvention days for many reasons-- too long for me to capture in this short reply. Even GAO has stepped out of its lane and making decisions that should be reserved for the contracting officer using his/her critical judgement skills. We need the pendulum to swing back again.

Thu, Oct 6, 2016 Stan Soloway

Steve...thanks for the shout out. My own view is that workforce optimism is a must if we have any hope of driving vibrant and innovative service delivery in government, be it organic or by contract. Moreover, while I totally agree with you how data can really enhance the system, the real question comes down to how we develop, train and support the workforce--in acquisition yes, but also in technology and other critical fields. Data is great and important; but it is only one facet of smart decision making. And preparing the workforce appropriately is the key to enabling them to use data wisely. And on that score, we still have a long way to go.

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