'Curiouser and curiouser'

I ran into a career government contracting person from one of the big buying agencies at a recent reception. He had a puzzled look on his face.

"Steve, I don't understand it. When you guys were here," he said, referring to Democrats, "we were encouraged to be innovative and businesslike. Now they're telling us to act like government bureaucrats."

The source of the puzzlement is obvious. People tend to associate Democrats with skepticism toward business and Republicans with a view that government should be more businesslike. Yet what he perceived to be happening was the reverse.

But this isn't the end of a situation that is getting "curiouser and curiouser," to quote Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland." After one senior Bush administration official appeared before an industry group to talk about contracting issues, an amazed industry insider circulated an e-mail message that said, "With Republicans like this, who needs Democrats?"

President Bush, to my knowledge, is no enormous friend of lawsuits. Yet the Office of Management and Budget's Office of Federal Procurement Policy recently sent a letter to agency procurement executives forbidding them from giving higher past performance ratings to contractors who use Alternative Dispute Resolution — a slap in the face to the Air Force, which has wanted to institute such a policy. An April 8 Federal Times commentary by Danielle Brian, the director of the Project on Government Oversight — which cut its teeth opposing Ronald Reagan's military buildup — denounced procurement reform. The commentary favorably cited Angela Styles, the Bush administration's senior procurement policy official!

To put it mildly, all this is creating a lot of confusion around town. Although I'm a Democrat, I want the administration's management agenda to succeed. I think that most of that agenda is excellent and that the administration is generally off to a good start executing it. Good government can and should be bipartisan. But what's coming out of the administration in the procurement area is off-message.

There's an easy way for the administration to get back on course. Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) has introduced the Services Acquisition Reform Act. It has valuable provisions encouraging share-in-savings contracting, promoting training for the acquisition workforce and encouraging commercial contracting (though in my view, these latter provisions need to be narrowed and focused somewhat).

Helping Davis make this bill a reality shouldn't require too much of a struggle, because he is a member of the House Republican leadership. If the administration wants to show that it shares the bipartisan consensus on procurement reform that moved us forward during the past decade, it should work with Davis to make the act a reality.

Kelman, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy from 1993 to 1997, is Weatherhead professor of public management at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. He can be reached at steve_kelman@harvard.edu.

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