In blame game, our leaders aren't running for cover

During my years in Washington, D.C., the single most common question I was asked by government procurement personnel— particularly in the Defense Department— went something like this: "What happens when we use our best judgment and the inspector general comes in afterward and criticizes us for making a mistake? How do we know that we're not going to be left hanging out to dry while our leaders run for cover?" It's a question that came from procurement folks, but it could have come from any career person in government deciding whether to go down the beaten path or stick his neck out by trying something new.

My response was twofold. First, I personally promised to come to the defense of any career employee who made an honest mistake while trying to find a better way to promote the public interest. Second, I reminded the person asking the question that folks in government had to be willing to stand up tall and defend their decisions to use their heads instead of just slavishly following old ways, even if that meant they sometimes made mistakes. DOD's leadership in this area and its willingness to back its own procurement personnel was put to the test after a highly publicized DOD IG report revealed that sole-source spare-parts purchasing by the department resulted in some dramatic overpayments [FCW, April 13].

How might DOD leadership have reacted to the IG report? There are several nonconstructive responses they could have made. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) specifically requested in a letter to Defense Secretary William Cohen that heads roll. In response, DOD leadership could have blamed the Defense Logistics Agency procurement personnel who paid the excessive prices, although it should be noted that in some cases, the contracting people recorded in the files that the prices were unreasonable and were only being accepted because airplanes would soon be grounded unless the parts were bought. DOD's leadership could have made middle managers the scapegoats. But it didn't do that. It didn't run for cover. It stood by its people.

An equally nonconstructive response would have been to become defensive and deny that there was a problem.The proper response to the spare-parts problems that the IG uncovered was not to blame individuals but to figure out what went wrong and correct the problems. That's what the idea of continuous improvement is about— learning from mistakes and taking corrective action. The spirit of continuous improvement is central to keeping procurement reform— and government reinvention in general— moving forward.

That's what the DOD leadership did. It didn't deny that there was a problem or act in a defensive way, except to note that the much larger gains from commercial buying need to be kept in mind. It sought to deal with the issue by aggressively negotiating for a hefty refund from the offending vendor and to deal with the underlying problem by improving training and consciousness about sole-source commercial buys.

The DOD IG should be commended for its role in the affair. The office avoided the temptation to use leaks and bombshells as a way of communicating with the larger department. The IG kept DOD informed and worked with the department on corrective measures. The IG report even included examples of commercial buying successes. Friends of procurement reform should thank the IG for performing the public service of calling our collective attention to a problem that needed to be addressed.

The bottom line: Amid the bad news in the spare-parts story, there are very important underlying positive developments that illustrate the progress we're making in dealing with innovation and change. And that's very good news for friends of good government.

-- 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.

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