Kelman: An ounce of prevention?

There have been many peculiar aspects of the politicized and media-driven spectacle that is post-Katrina contracting. One of the most disappointing aspects has been the contrast between the explosion of calls for more inspector general personnel focusing on Katrina-related contracting compared with the absence of calls for more contracting experts.

Elected officials and self-proclaimed watchdogs have been tripping over one another to ask for the spiffiest new Katrina-contracting inspector general czar, who would be accompanied by an army of fraud-busters.

To be sure, prudence demands a strengthened IG presence. The government is quickly spending a lot of money. As I have written earlier, cronyism and fraud is hardly the only or the most significant issue to worry about regarding the quality of contracting during relief and recovery operations. The flood of money attracts malfeasance and tempts well-intentioned people to take advantage of the lucrative situation.

But our most urgent need is more good contracting people on the front lines of sensible government spending.

Good contracting people bring many qualities to the table that IGs don’t. First, good contracting people care about many issues, such as designing intelligent requirements and contract structures, that transcend the IG’s antifraud mandate.

Good contracting folks have contract management skills involving cost and performance issues that might not rise to the level of illegality or regulation violations – the IG sweet spot. However, they make the difference in the everyday world of procurement between good contractor performance and mediocre or poor performance.

Past performance ratings, especially for cost control, are one of the government’s most important tools for dealing with performance that is undistinguished but not illegal. IGs don’t do past performance report cards; contracting officers do. The government can use past performance ratings, unlike IG reports, to reward contractors in addition to punishing them.

The difference between the contracting and IG cultures is also important. Contracting experts learn to watch out for the government’s interest and be tough and unrelenting when required. But contracting officers generally have a more nuanced view of the proper relationship between the government and the typical contractor than most IGs do.

IGs are mostly in the business of uncovering wrongdoing. Contracting people are in the business of trying to achieve success, which, in most cases, is hurt rather than helped by the unrelenting distrust and suspicion of the waste, fraud, and abuse crowd.

In short, IGs are one-note Charlies. Good contracting people can play a symphony.

Finally, there is something bizarre about adding to the number of IGs while not adding to the number of contracting folks. Understaffed contracting shops will make more mistakes and uncover less fraud. The new army of IGs will presumably discover this after the fact, which would appear to justify the decision to concentrate the investment in auditors rather than contracting people.

Wouldn’t it have been better to reduce problems before they occur? Have we forgotten the adage: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure?

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

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