By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Contracting and the fall of Rome?

On a brief one-day stopover at my home in Boston before leaving for a talk at a government procurement conference in Ohio and the annual acquisition research conference at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., I packed my suitcase with a bunch of magazines that had arrived while I was in Europe -- to read on the plane, at meals when I ate alone and while walking on hotel treadmills.

This morning at the gym in Monterey, I opened the June issue of Vanity Fair, and guess what I saw in the Editor's Letter from Graydon Carter?

"In [an] excerpt from his new book, 'Are We Rome?,' due out in May, [Cullen] Murphy examines one of the underlying causes of the fall of the Roman Empire: privatization. Similarly, Murphy says, the U.S. 'has embarked on a privatization binge like no other in its history.' The firms the work is being outsourced to, he says, not only are taking over nearly every vital function of government but also are unregulated and unaccountable to the public."

Now it's the fall of Rome?

I read the piece by Murphy. It is over the top and very poorly argued -- handed in as a student paper, it wouldn't have gotten a good grade. It should be noted that he also includes under the rubric "privatization" a lot more than just contracting.

Nonetheless, this article is a sign of a new reality about debates about contracting. As I noted in an earlier post, the subject of contracting is so boring that the only way to get any public attention for it is to engage in wild rhetoric, a Don Imus-style public debate.

It is difficult to have a sensible public debate because there are so few sound bites that can be feasibly developed for a sensible position. About the only sound bites on the "other side" involve offensive rhetoric about needing contractors as an alternative to incompetent civil servants, which is no better than the fall of Rome stuff.

Any ideas about dealing with this dilemma?

Posted by Steve Kelman on May 16, 2007 at 12:08 PM


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