Try procurement reform, you'll like it

One of the amazing perks of being an academic is the long summer vacation, starting in early June and ending after Labor Day. The day after graduation, faculty jackets and ties come off, and polo shirts and jeans - even shorts - appear. A professor who so chooses can proceed to spend three months lounging on the beach, playing tennis or reading trashy novels.

For most professors at research-oriented universities, however, summer vacation is not really a vacation. Without term-time teaching and administrative responsibilities, many spend their summers busily conducting academic research and writing.

That's how I've spent my summer vacation. During this past academic year, I was busy gathering data for an academic study of procurement reform as seen from the front lines of the system. Since I am hardly the most objective observer of whether reform has been successful in improving the system, I chose to leave such an evaluation to others. Instead, my goal has been to look at the process of organizational change in large, bureaucratic federal agencies. Just about everyone would say that achieving change in such a setting is extremely difficult.

Therefore, I have been trying to look at how procurement reform became possible. During the past year, I visited 19 contracting organizations throughout the federal government and interviewed procurement professionals - managers, supervisors and worker bees - in each. In addition, all the contracting employees in these organizations filled out a long, written survey, which generally involved answering questions with fixed response alternatives. At the beginning of the summer, I started analyzing my data and writing a book I hope to publish whose findings will be directed not just at government contracting wonks but at anybody interested in strategies for change in large organizations.

One of the findings that has intrigued me the most so far involves a question in the written survey where I asked respondents whether they agreed or disagreed with this statement: "The more I try new ways of doing my job, the more I'm convinced they make sense." (In my analysis, I've named this question "Likeways.") It will not surprise anybody to learn that government contracting professionals who agree with that statement tend to be more supportive of procurement reform.

However, it turns out that people who agree with that statement - even when you hold fixed their views on whether procurement reform has made their jobs easier, empowered them and made it easier to get a good deal for the government - still are a good deal more supportive of reform.

What is curious here is that one might expect that those three substantive reasons why a person might like reform more the more they tried it would fully account for the impact of the Likeways question. Why else might a person like the new ways the more they try them other than that it's made their job easier, empowered them or given the government good deals?

The answer is that there are psychological forces that push people to become more supportive of changed behavior simply because they've actually tried it out, independent of any self-perceived substantive effects of trying new behavior out. One is what psychologists call the "mere exposure" effect, which has been studied in more than 200 psychological experiments. In one, subjects shown a photograph of themselves and a mirror-image photograph preferred the mirror-image photo, while for close friends of the subjects, the preference was reversed. In each case, subjects and friends preferred the image they were most accustomed to seeing.

Another psychological phenomenon that explains people becoming more involved in change simply by trying it out is called the "foot in the door" effect, which has been described as inducing people to take initial small, seemingly inconsequential steps that put them on a path that ultimately will lead them to take much larger and more consequential actions.

In one of the most famous natural-setting experiments in the history of psychology, undertaken in a neighborhood near Stanford University, 76 percent of subjects agreed to place a large, crudely lettered, ugly "Drive Carefully" sign in their yard two weeks after having been asked by a different person to sign a petition or place a small sign on their car window supporting safe driving. Only 17 percent of subjects agreed to display the sign when they had not received the earlier visit to sign the petition. (The study is called "Compliance Without Pressure: The Foot-in-the-Door Technique" and was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1966.)

There's an important lesson to be learned from the mere exposure and foot-in-the-door effects for anybody in government, or in industry for that matter, seeking to change an organization to improve its performance. Stop talking, studying and analyzing. Get people in the organization to start behaving differently, trying out some of the change ideas you are hoping to get established in your organization. Once people start acting differently, psychological forces will help get the changes to spread and become established. In the words of the ad slogan, "Just do it."

--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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