By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

The Lectern: Control freakery

I noticed something interesting in yesterday morning's edition of Today's Acquisition News, the indispensable daily email summary put together for the procurement community by Acquisition Solutions, the procurement community's sort of government-in-exile that has on its staff many outstanding, results-oriented retired civil servant contracting professionals.

Yesterday's report contained 11 items. Six involved general government news, with some version of a procurement connection, such as passage of the defense and intelligence authorization bills and the Senate confirming the new VA secretary. One was a procurement story involving a whistleblower on the Coast Guard Deepwater contract.

However, all the other four procurement/government management-related stories -- in other words, four of the five specifically procurement/government management stories -- were about some report or other document alleging inadequate "controls" in some feature of procurement-related government management: "DOE IG finds homeland security equipment goes astray because of lack of property controls" or "GAO finds weak controls for improper reporting for DOD travel," for example.

The headlines in Today's Acquisition News reflect, sadly, the current environment for government management. The words we use reflect our thoughts and our approaches. While the word "control" is out there in every nook and cranny, there wasn't a single article in Today's Acquisition News using other words that might also represent features of government organizations -- words such as "initiative," "innovation," "creativity," "empowerment," "commitment," "results," or "mission." The dominance of the word "control" speaks volumes.

Of course, organizations need, among other things, controls to work well, particularly to avoid abuses. But they also need -- arguably even more -- committed and empowered employees who take initiative, particularly to create results on behalf of agency missions.

We're not doing much these days to bring forth such behaviors. The language of "controls" is the language of the fear industry. It is the language that gives employees in procurement organizations these days the feel of working on a chain gang. It is not the language of public-sector excellence. It is not the language that will attract young people into public service.

The Brits have a nice phrase, "control freakery," that they use slightly differently from the way I'm talking about controls here, mostly to refer to politicians (such as, allegedly, Tony Blair) who insist on keeping an eye on everything to ensure it comes out exactly as they intend. Yesterday's edition of Today's Acquisition News provides further evidence that we currently suffer from a case of runaway control freakery in the management of the federal government.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Dec 18, 2007 at 12:08 PM


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