Pendulum metaphor need not dictate our destinies

One of the nice features of returning to academia is the opportunity to read significantly more books than I was allowed to while in government. Recently I read a book that is moderately renowned in academic circles, and that I, in fact, had on my bookshelf before going to Washington but had never read. The book is called Metaphors We Live By (University of Chicago Press, 1980), and it was written by linguistics professor George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson.

The basic argument these authors make is that the use of metaphors in our everyday lives is pervasive— certainly not limited to poetry and literature.

Lakoff and Johnson point out, for example, all the war and battle metaphors typically used in everyday English to describe disagreements between people: "He attacked every weak point in my argument," "His criticisms were right on target," "He shot down all my suggestions."

Metaphors, the authors argue, help us understand less familiar concepts in the context of more familiar ones. They help us structure the world around us.

But with these benefits come costs, the authors noted. Any metaphor not only brings to the foreground some element of the reality being described, but it also downplays elements of the reality that are not consistent with the metaphor. For example, if you use battle metaphors to describe political arguments, you downplay other features that might reflect a joint search for truth, an openness to listening and learning or an inclination toward compromise.

One of the reasons I wanted to read Metaphors We Live By is that I was struck while in government by the frequent use of what I will call the "metaphor of the pendulum" to describe procurement reform (and, indeed, much of the broader re-

inventing government movement as a whole). The statement goes something like this: "Sure, right now, federal procurement has been moving in the direction of fewer rules and more leeway for government folks to use their judgment. But the pendulum will swing back. After awhile we'll go back to the way things were before procurement reform, and the regulations and distrust will return."

As in many other metaphors, the metaphor of the pendulum captures something. A pendulum encounters the countervailing force of gravity as it swings upward, until finally that force becomes greater than the energy remaining in the pendulum and a reverse of direction begins. Likewise, procurement reform— as well as other government management reforms— face countervailing resistance from special interests that becomes more persistent the greater the amount of change that has actually occurred. Meanwhile, the energy remaining in the movement may be seen as declining as the first rush of enthusiasm dissipates. An analogous metaphor, "Every change includes the seeds of its own decline," highlights the point that along with procurement changes come seeds of excess that may grow into scandals which can be used by opponents to counteract the movement toward reform.

At the same time, all of us, whether we are in government or industry, must fight the metaphor of the pendulum as it applies to procurement. The reason I react so strongly to this metaphor is that it expresses such a contemptuous, denigrating view of the ability of people who work in and around government to achieve progress and improvement over time. Imagine if somebody said this about General Electric: "Sure they've cut back on bureaucracy and created a much more nimble and responsive organization, but don't worry— the pendulum will swing back, and they'll become bureaucratic again."

Few of us doubt the ability of private business to learn and make progress over time. That doesn't mean that there are no false steps, no excesses, no steps in a different direction once the march down a certain road has begun.

To endorse the metaphor of the pendulum for government means that we are attaching ourselves to a belief that government organizations, unlike private firms, are incapable of moving forward, of making progress, and instead are condemned, as was Sisyphus in the Greek myth, to roll the rock up the hill, only to have it fall down again without ever making it over the top. If the prospects for permanent improvement in public organizations were as dismal as the pendulum metaphor suggested, I urge everyone working for or with government to pack up their bags and quit. Who would want to be associated with such a depressing enterprise?

In fact, we have far more control over our destinies than the metaphor of the pendulum suggests. The loss of energy that occurs as the pendulum swings can still be delayed for a long time because government's a big place, and reform successes are still spurring further changes in organizations that have only gotten their reform feet wet. And if we let possible excesses be the occasion for retreat rather than making sensible midcourse corrections in the spirit of continuous improvement, we have only ourselves to blame. Let's show what we can accomplish by demonstrating that the metaphor of the pendulum need not control our future.

-- Kelman was the administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy from 1993 to 1997. He is now Weatherhead Professor of Public Management at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

Featured

  • IT Modernization
    Eisenhower Executive Office Building (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

    OMB's user guide to the MGT Act

    The Office of Management and Budget is working on a rules-of-the-road document to cover how agencies can seek and use funds under the MGT Act.

  • global network (Pushish Images/Shutterstock.com)

    As others see us -- a few surprises

    A recent dinner with civil servants from Asia delivered some interesting insights, Steve Kelman writes.

  • FCW Perspectives
    cloud (Singkham/Shutterstock.com)

    A smarter approach to cloud

    Advances in cloud technology are shifting the focus toward choosing the right tool for the job and crafting solutions that truly modernize systems.

Stay Connected

FCW Update

Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.