Kelman: Good government is priceless

Federal procurement goals and legal constraints are out of whack and need a course correction.

The editorial page of Federal Computer Week has performed a public service with its recent editorial “The purchase card: Priceless” and the accompanying John Klossner cartoon, which shows an entire house built of purchase card success stories next to a tiny pile marked “abuses.” Auditors are circling the small pile — and Klossner could have added journalists and politicians — proclaiming, “Oh, this is an outrage,” and, “A full investigation must be launched.”

I distributed the cartoon to a class of Senior Executive Service members enrolled in an executive education program at Harvard University and e-mailed it to some friends in government.

The editorial and cartoon address one of the most serious problems we face in trying to improve government performance. Any organization has good things it wants to do and ethical or legal constraints, which are the bad things it needs to avoid. The balance of those two is out of whack in government.

The blame rests with the media, some elected officials and a number of self-styled watchdog groups. Those groups specialize in exposing scandals. They are indifferent to ordinary agency performance. They pay little attention when agencies perform well and not much when they fall short, unless they can spin the shortfall as a scandal.

Sometimes, the scandals uncovered are simply untrue as represented. Most often, as was the case with the purchase card abuses, the incidents are true but atypical. Scandals almost always provide an unbalanced portrayal of what goes on in government, but they have an impact.

If an organization gets pilloried for errors but never rewarded for good performance, it will design itself to minimize errors. It will create stifling layers of review, impose excessive internal regulation and be unwilling to give people room to make decisions — all of which degrade an organization’s performance.

You cannot give an official power to do right without at the same time giving him power to do wrong. If, above all, the government needs to avoid scandal, then denying civil servants the power to do right would be a price worth paying.

The boss who nags you when you make a mistake and ignores you when you shine is the boss from hell. Such bosses don’t produce good performance. Yet that’s the kind of agency boss that politicians and the media have become.

For government to perform well, our public discussion must be about substantive performance. Are government organizations achieving progress in fighting cancer, making the roads safer, educating our kids and protecting our citizens? Scandal-mongering sheds no light on such issues.

We should criticize when agencies fall short but also recognize and celebrate their successes. What is perhaps saddest about publicity is that most people who peddle scandal believe they are serving the public interest. If that is true, all of us concerned about government performance must educate others. We need to explain to the well-meaning that their activities make government worse, not better.

Maybe readers of this column can start such an effort. If you agree with the sentiments in this column, circulate it to colleagues, acquaintances and outside-the-Beltway family members. Maybe some of you can send it to your elected representatives.

Kelman is 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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