By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

The Lectern: Excessive oversight conflicts with desire for results

Back around 2001, Steve Schooner, who is now the co-director of the Government Procurement Law Program at George Washington University, attracted significant attention and controversy with his criticism of 1990s procurement reform for gutting contract oversight and legal protections. For several years, the two of us did a "Steve and Steve Show," appearing at various contracting gatherings debating procurement policy. Throughout the years, Schooner and I remained friends -- he had worked for a while at the Office of Federal Procurement Policy while I was there. More recently, we actually co-authored some op-ed articles, which attracted attention of the sort that comes when a prominent Democrat and a prominent Republican in Congress co-sponsor legislation.

Steve recently wrote a brief background paper on contracting policy in the new administration for an IBM Center for the Business of Government conference on the public management research agenda. Reading the paper, it seems that our previous disagreements have disappeared. Noting that developing countries need to focus their procurement system efforts on reducing corruption, he notes that "the United States can do better." (I have frequently stated that we don't want to design a procurement system in the U.S. that would be fit for Paraguay or Gabon.) One of the primary challenges he identified for the system was "neutralizing the toxic environment" in which "resources are shifted from pursuing value-based outcomes to creating compliance and risk avoidance regimes." His paper concludes:

History demonstrates that a rules-based, command and control procurement system will not provide the flexibility, speed, and customer satisfaction necessary for a heavily outsourced government to effectively perform its missions. Nor will such an approach maximize the value of taxpayer dollars spent. Performance objectives -- outcomes, rather than processes -- must move to the forefront of acquisition reform.

The only exception I take to this whole paragraph is the split infinitive in the first sentence!

Schooner's paper reminds me a bit of my own experiences as a college student in the '60s. My political views stayed more or less constant, but in the view of others I appeared to shift from being pretty far on the left to pretty far on the right, just because the political climate on campus had shifted so dramatically to the left. Steve's new statements actually shed very important light on the state of the contracting system right now: There is so much emphasis on oversight, control and legalisms, and so little on results, that even a member of the community who is a procurement lawyer and has an above-average desire to make sure the system has oversight and legal protections thinks things have gone much too far.

Given the Obama administration's stated preference for a government oriented toward results, this represents a strategic challenge for Jeff Zients, the chief performance officer, and for Daniel Gordon, slated to become the new OFPP administrator.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Nov 12, 2009 at 12:08 PM


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