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By Steve Kelman

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When 'compliance' should be a dirty word

Shutterstock image (by Ismagilov): businessmen holding check boxes, decision making concept.

I recently saw a new report from the Department of Defense inspector general titled Defense Organization Officials Did Not Consistently Comply With Requirements for Assessing Contractor Performance. The IG reviewed past performance report cards prepared at four defense non-warfighting commands, including the contracting organization for the Defense Information Systems Agency.

Reading the report, I was reminded of the kinds of worries about IG investigationsthat I raised in a recent blog post. Reading the report, it turns out that report cards were submitted for every contract where one should have been, but this fact is passed over with scarcely a mention, and certainly with no kudos to these organizations. The IG noted that about a quarter of the reports from three of the four commands were submitted late; the performance of the command that submitted all reports on time was simply left out and not mentioned! (The decision rules here seems to have been the opposite of what your mother told you: if you don’t have something bad to say, don’t say anything at all.)

A major element of the report was data on the number of reports with “insufficient” written narratives explaining a rating (86 of 327 total evaluation factors in the report cards) or where a factor was not given any rating, along with a criticism that the commands had no written procedures for how to review ratings at a level above where they were generated. The left-out evaluation factors may have been considered unimportant for many of the contracts in question.

My main purpose in writing this blog post, however, is not simply to repeat and provide a bit more meat on the bone for my earlier worries. Instead, what caught my eye when I first saw mention of the report was the word “comply.” As in, “does not consistently comply.”

Using the word “compliance” sends a clear signal to people being asked to do something: This is not something you want to do, but you have to do it anyway!

I have a problem applying that concept to work government employees do for the past performance report card system -- and, similarly, for work done in support of performance measurement in their organization. In both cases, what employees are being asked to work on is designed to improve how the organization performs. Past performance report cards are designed to help improve contractor performance. Managing using performance measures is intended to help an organization improve its own performance. In both cases, our hope should be that employees will be enthusiastic and committed to contributing to make these systems work better.

The message from above should not be “this is an unpleasant task, but one we need to force you to do. ” It should be, “What a great opportunity for us to help our organization!”

The word “compliance” sends the former message, not the latter one.

Why does this make a difference to efforts to improve how an organization works? If people are being forced to “comply” with something, they will feel no sense of intrinsic motivation. They will often go along minimalistically, ritually, or even maliciously. Employees will follow the letter of the directive, not the spirit. They will not seek out ways not covered in the directive that might further the underlying purpose of the directive. And they will stop complying as soon as supervision and monitoring cease.

This is why, when a certain behavior is for the good of the organization, our goal should be to infuse as many employees as possible with an internalized commitment to the behavior, and the underlying values it promotes, rather than putting them into compliance mode.

Sometimes, of course, compliance is an appropriate word to describe what we want from others. We want teenagers to comply with a curfew – even if they would prefer to be out and about. Despite Oliver Wendall Holmes’ observation that he liked to pay taxes because with them he bought civilization, many of us would prefer not to pay up, so tax compliance is an appropriate phrase.

But in most other instances, I would urge people to be careful about their choice of language, so as not to demotivate behavior about which we want others to be enthusiastic.

Spread the word to warn colleagues about this danger!

Posted by Steve Kelman on Mar 13, 2017 at 6:44 PM

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Reader comments

Mon, Mar 20, 2017

This is a classic by the IG. They worry about small stuff like past performance reporting and miss the big stuff. The so-called "Fat Leonard" scandal of Navy contracting for ship husbanding is one of the worst contracting scandals in American history. Where were the IGs while this "Fat Leonard" was going on?

Tue, Mar 14, 2017

Steve -- sharing another observation here as well. I believe we all generally agree that CPARS reporting is important and can help us make better informed buying decisions. The evaluation scheme has its challenges, which should be addressed, but what struck me about the report is the lack of information about the actual risks these tardy reports presented to government. My thoughts: -- For the small percentage of reports that were late, how many of those reports were (1) negative and (2) resulted in ill-informed buying decisions on other procurements? -- The discussion around quality narratives largely focused on justifying "superior" and "very good" ratings. Again, what was the risk realized by the agency or other users of CPARS ratings? Was a best value source selection decision on another procurement awarded to a company it shouldn't have been? Was there some connection to fraud in exchange for giving the company a positive rating? -- Many source selections are using CPARS ratings as a "fail safe" and not the primary source of past performance or responsibility information. For example, many source selections use standalone questionnaires as their primary information source/tool for evaluating past performance. Given this practice, if a positive rating was not sufficiently documented, again, what was or are the actual negative consequences to the government? In my work, I look to the OIG to help identify risks we haven't recognized and to ensure bad actors are not inappropriately influencing the procurement process. When the impacts of errors like those documented in this report are not characterized appropriately or realistically, the whole exercise becomes non-value added and a waste of valuable resources. Worse, it becomes another "boy who cried wolf" report which serves no one well.

Tue, Mar 14, 2017 Sharon D.C. Metro area

Compliance is not a dirty word it is a word that states you have set up standards to assure a consistent "excellent" product! Otherwise you have chaos.

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