By Steve Kelman

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The Lectern: "I wanted to reinvent the wheel"

We had an interesting discussion on Monday in my public management class. The topic was the upsides and downsides of using rules as a primary way to structure organizations. We were discussing how rules can help institutional memory, codifying experience about what works and what doesn't, so each employee doesn't need to reinvent the wheel.


A student who had worked on Capitol Hill before coming to the Kennedy School raised her hand. She complained that whenever she came up with a new idea or tried to figure out how to do something better, her supervisor would tell her to stop trying to reinvent the wheel. It got on her nerves. "I wanted to reinvent the wheel," she said -- by which the student meant that she wanted to use her brain to figure out how the job could be accomplished better. She regarded her boss' statement as a way of telling her to stop trying to think. It made her feel like just a cog in a machine, she said. After a while, the student quit the job. A number of other students proceeded to agree with her.


If we use the word "reinvent" in the sense it was used in "reinventing government," you can see her point.


Of course, the problem is that in procurement, and some other areas of government management, Washington's fear industry seeks to move the system in exactly the direction that turns off these students, the next generation of public servants. The fear industry's solution to every problem is more rules, more controls, and more discouraging people to think new thoughts. What is ironic is that some of these same people express worries about the ability to recruit a new generation of the acquisition workforce.


Hell-o?! Don't these folks realize the policies they are promoting are making the acquisition workforce the last place where bright young people seeking a challenge would ever want to hang out?


There's a larger message here: Anybody who worries about the government's human capital crisis and about attracting a new generation to government service needs to be part of the battle against bureaucracy in government.


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Posted by Steve Kelman on Feb 26, 2008 at 12:09 PM


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