MIA on procurement

In a little squib announcing the nomination of David Safavian as new administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, the Washington Post headlined that the new head of the Bush administration's competitive sourcing initiative had been named. The item, however, did not mention that the job is intended to be the government's senior procurement policy position. Angela Styles, his predecessor, noted that "95 percent of his time will be spent on [OMB Circular] A-76."

This is not good news.

Nearly 40 percent of the government's discretionary budget is spent buying goods and services. Many agencies depend on contractors to help achieve their mission, which means that buying well — including project management — has become a core competency agencies need.

With Iraq contracting, the Boeing Co. tanker deal and union efforts to badmouth the procurement system as part of their struggle against competitive sourcing — the worse the system looks, the weaker the case for outsourcing — procurement recently has received record levels of visibility in the general media. Even with regard to competitive sourcing, it is the procurement system that will award, structure and manage any contracts with firms that grow out of the initiative.

Knowing how to buy well needs to be a core competency for government, but we are far from there. The system has gotten better in the past decade, but we need top leaders to be stoking the fires to encourage frontline innovations of ways to buy more effectively.

Furthermore, because of the media visibility, this is an extremely dangerous moment for the health of the system. We could end up in a situation in which attention reverts to bureaucratic process, like before procurement reform, rather than results, and to the kind of unproductive adversarial business government relations that used to mar contracting. We need top leaders to defend the integrity of the system against innuendo, make the case for a results orientation and preach the virtues for the taxpayer of partnership rather than confrontation with industry.

We have had three years of nonleadership — or negative leadership — from the White House on procurement. Styles' prediction about the time priorities for the new OFPP administrator does not bode well for improvement. This is worrisome.

The entire burden of developing intelligent policy has been placed on the shoulders of Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.). Those are — to be sure — superb shoulders. Davis is knowledgeable about procurement, and his instincts are the right ones.

But Davis can't be expected to take on this whole burden himself. He needs help from the Bush administration, which seems to be missing in action.

Kelman is a 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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