By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

How to think about new policy proposals – feedback on my feedback

In recent blogs, I have suggested a number of ideas for specific ways to improve the procurement system – one is a way to encourage small businesses who currently don’t sell to government to enter the federal marketplace and the other is a way to encourage contractors on fixed-priced contracts to share some of their cost savings on those contracts with the government. I made these two suggestions in fairly rapid succession partly because I actually think that both are, on balance, good ideas that would improve the procurement system – but also as a way to encourage others in the system to get their thinking caps on and come up with ideas of their own. With the importance of government contracting, and the current budget environment, the procurement system can use good ideas for improvement.
The reaction to both suggestions from blog commenters was mixed. Fine. However, I would like in a generic way to respond to at least some of the comments by the critics, because I believe my perspective provides some guidelines for how we ought to think about new policy ideas in general.
First, and most importantly, when evaluating a new idea, the standard against which it should be judged is not nirvana – few ideas have no disadvantages or downsides – but in comparison with problems the status quo creates. The correct question is always, “Compared to what?” If an idea has problems, tote these up against problems with the way things work now.
Second, Teresa Amabile at Harvard Business School did some fascinating research a number of years ago where she presented different groups of experimental subjects a book review. The versions were almost identical, but one group got a version with critical or negative adjectives, while the other read a version using favorable or positive adjectives. She found that subjects who read the version with critical words rated the review as more insightful and the reviewer smarter than did the subjects who read the same review with favorable words. She labeled what she discovered as “negativity bias,” and it may be hard-wired in people. People may feel smarter if they can come up with criticisms.

It was interesting to see that one critic of my ideas on the use of past performance for cost savings on fixed-price contracts idea rejected the proposal arguing that it would have no effect on contractor behavior, while another rejected it believing it would terrify contractors into submission to the government. Maybe those reading the comments think those writers are smart, but obviously that doesn’t necessarily produce useful policy or management dialogue.

Lastly, although I recognize the blogosphere is not known as a font of gentle or respectful language, some of the expressions used in some of the comments were, I think, problematic. I am a big boy: I can take it when a commenter writes “a three percent 'kickback' for future work sounds a bit like payola to me” or “I cannot tell you how awful I think the ‘fee’ return idea is. Truly awful.”

But this kind of language can bully or intimidate people from presenting new ideas, particularly if those with the new ideas are young or in a junior position compared to the person using words such as these.  This kind of language in organizations or teams is an enemy of useful deliberation about ideas, and it is an excellent way to discourage new ideas from being presented in the first place. Younger or lower-ranking people, in a world of this kind of rhetoric, are likely just to say to themselves, “Why bother?” and return to their cubbyholes. This is exactly what government does not need.

Posted on Jul 17, 2012 at 12:09 PM


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