Letter: Civil servants are in the power seat of change

Regarding "The Lectern: I wanted to reinvent the wheel," a reader writes: You’re leading the charge in the right direction, but I’m confused — more than usual. It was surprising, with more than 1.5 million executive branch civil servants, to see you pluck the lead illustration from Capitol Hill, an other-worldly environment that’s vastly different from the operating government.


Also surprising was the exhortation at the end to fight the “bureaucracy” rather than the Fear Industry you’ve schooled us in.  The FI — some on the Hill, some in the media, inspectors general, and watchdog groups — are all on the outside of management, and according to the FI shtick, the source of the oppressive carping and punishment that stifles risk-taking, innovation and general happiness. 


The bureaucracy, on the other hand, is mainly the army of civil servants themselves, with only a sprinkling of competent political appointee leaders. I think we need to recognize civil servants’ discretion to improve things without need of many new laws or regs. The bureaucrats make almost all the hires — that’s one of their best opportunities to improve the breed of civil servants. They also can engage, with scant penalty or even some encouragement, in the kind of incremental continuous improvement that managers in private industry are compelled to produce in well managed companies. Yes, their comp. needs to be restructured by the Congress and the White House, but the career bureaucracy, the most precious resource in the government, seems a little shy about what comes with that. Not just rabid union leaders, but career employees at various levels have voiced stark fear of the pay-for-performance plans at DOD and DHS. And they have stymied or fouled the implementation of  genuine performance-based contracting for the companies that are, at the same time, essential, threatening, and frustrating.


We don’t need a change of administration or policies to have many of improvements needed in the acquisition sphere. We need basic blocking and tackling for much of it, all permitted now. The risks involved are small; try to name even five cases where a federal career tanked because of something honestly tried, but failed.  And frankly, if there is some risk, that’s a best commercial practice. It tends to focus the mind and inspire successful performances.


Regardless of who our next president is, I think civil servants, including acquisition professionals, will have their best chance in years to show what they can really do.


Michael Lent
Government Services Insider


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