A thing we can agree on

I recently attended a fascinating meeting about the contracting issues that

will face the new administration.

It was co-sponsored by the Reason Public Policy Institute, a libertarian-inclined

think tank with lots of Republican ties, along with Washington-based good

government organizations such as the Council for Excellence in Government

and the National Academy of Public Administration. It's one of a four-part

"transition dialogue series" on management issues for the next president.

The meeting brought together a bipartisan cast of characters and several

senior career government officials dealing with procurement. Carl DeMaio,

who directs the institute's "21st Century Government Project" and used to

work on Results Act issues for Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas), kicked off the

meeting by noting that Washington, D.C., was filled with transition activities

involving policy issues such as how the United States should behave toward

China. But there were few activities focusing on crucial management issues

affecting the quality of the government's performance.

What was most revealing about the meeting was the level of consensus

about President Clinton's and Vice President Gore's procurement reforms,

and the management philosophy embodied in the re-inventing government movement.

There was disagreement about whether contracting out functions performed

by government employees should increase, but there was remarkable agreement

that contracting changes have made it easier for the government to obtain

better value.

DeMaio's first question to the audience, "What improvements have occurred

in contracting over the last decade," produced a torrent of praise for procurement

reform. More innovation, the spread of best—value contracting, improved

communication with industry, use of past performance, changes at the General

Services Administration and even the progress of performance-based contracting

received approval from the crowd. (Interestingly, the most visible feature

of procurement reform — the ability to make awards faster — received only

passing mention.)

Judging from the tone of those remarks, procurement reform is a bipartisan

success story.

Just as revealing was the general tone of participants, particularly

the Republicans, toward government and toward the "liberate the front lines"

philosophy of the reinventing government effort. There was not a peep of

contempt for lazy or pointy-headed bureaucrats. Participants liked the idea

of reducing rules that make it difficult for federal employees to shine.

I was blown away to hear Republicans refer to "dedicated public servants"

and "innovative federal workers."

The theme of this meeting was improving government, not bashing government.

And the consensus about management issues is good news for better government,

because it suggests that the sensible approaches that began with the total

quality management efforts of the Bush administration and that expanded

during eight years of Clinton-Gore will continue no matter who wins in November.

—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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