By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Contracting and a public management conference in England

I'm back in the United Kingdom working in London on academic research, but on my way I stopped in Manchester for a conference of public management/public administration academics at the Manchester Business School. (At Manchester, as in much of the United Kingdom, public administration programs are a part of business schools).

What struck me at the first day of the conference was the amount of attention paid to contracting, although contracting was not a specific topic of the conference and basically none of the participants specializes in research on contracting. But the growth of contracting in government, both in the United States and the United Kingdom was a theme to which a number of presenters returned. The general view was that (a) this is an extremely important topic, (b) governments need to get much better at managing contracts, and (c) we need more academic research on this.

I think it is also fair to say that most of those speaking on this issue there are concerned that government is contracting out things it shouldn't be contracting out. Participants mentioned contracting out the preparation of an agency's budget documents (though it was unclear whether this was substantive budget preparation or quasi-clerical work) and having private military forces in Iraq. One participant worried that too much information technology outsourcing meant the government did or would lack the in-house talent to manage the outsourced contracts; another participant responded that the government would need to hire some senior high-paid talent to help do that.

The sentiments expressed on the importance of better contract management as a key issue for government, and some unease at the extent of government contracting, track similar sentiments I've been hearing over the past few years at public management academic conferences in the U.S. and to some extent among Fellows of the National Academy of Public Administration. Although this is "merely" academics talking (NAPA, however, is mostly practitioners, albeit often retired), my view is that this is a harbinger that the practitioner community should notice and take as a wake-up call. The fact that these academics are not specifically people who study contracting gives the issues they raise greater weight, because they have no particular professional stake in calling for increased emphasis on contract management in government.

Also, a younger generation of scholars, such as Matt Potoski at the University of Iowa, Trevor Brown at Ohio State, and David Van Slyke at the Maxwell School at Syracuse, are doing good scholarly work on government contracting. We need more like them.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Jun 19, 2007 at 12:08 PM


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