Assessing our goals

Steve Schooner, a member of the public contracts law faculty at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., is an articulate advocate of the view that procurement reforms have gone "too far" in reducing oversight in the system.

At a recent debate between Schooner and me at the National Contracts Management Association, he summarized our differences as reflecting different views on the most important goals of the procurement system.

Schooner said that I see the most important goals of the system as getting best value goods and services for agencies, and a good deal for taxpayers. Those are important goals, Schooner agreed. But they are not the most important ones. The most important goals of the system are transparency, integrity and competition — to assure the public that government monies are being wisely spent.

Schooner is correct in his characterization of basic dividing lines among different philosophies of federal procurement — and, I would venture to add, more broadly of public management. While agreeing with his characterization, I fundamentally disagree with his choice.

In my view, transparency and integrity are not the primary goals of the procurement system; in fact, they are not goals of the system at all. That does not mean they're unimportant.

What it means is that they should be seen as constraints that establish what Harvard Business School professor Robert Simons, in a 1995 article titled "Management Control in an Age of Empowerment," calls a "boundary system," setting limits on what one may legitimately do to achieve one's goals. Thus, in a company, making a profit is a goal. Not cooking the books in the service of making profits is a constraint — an action the organization may not legitimately take in pursuit of its goals.

Goals are what you get people to try to be better at all the time. A good organization wants people to be thinking about meeting its goals all the time. Delivering on its goals, if the goals are good ones, allows an organization to deliver value to society.

By contrast, in a well-functioning system, constraints should be so much a part of the organization's culture that people don't need to think about them much, because adhering to them is taken for granted as "how we do business."

Indeed, an organization forced to focus on constraints rather than goals is almost certainly an organization in deep trouble. We also have police and jails to deal with violations of boundary systems, but their role can be kept separate from the vast majority of people in functioning organizations, who have no intention of violating constraints.

The approach of the advocates of a government oriented only toward constraints and not toward results is a recipe for a government that can attract none but dullards. Surely we must not set our sights so low.

Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University's Kennedy School and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. He can be reached at steve_ kelman@harvard.edu.

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