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By Steve Kelman

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Developing a course on procurement management -- seeking advice!

Complexity (Shutterstock image)

Given that it accounts for more than 40 percent of the U.S. federal government budget (and similar fractions in many state and local governments), procurement receives rather little attention, in terms of either teaching or research, even in public administration or public policy programs at U.S. universities. There are procurement-law related courses at a number of law schools, and Florida Atlantic University offers an online "executive certificate" in public procurement. But relatively few public administration programs, and to my knowledge no public policy program, offer even one course in government procurement.

The most interesting academic work that relates to procurement is research by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Oliver Williamson that is very relevant to the make-buy decision, and by extension somewhat relevant to procurement management. (For a good introduction, see his book Markets and Hierarchies.)

Basically, Williamson argues that when it is hard to specify exactly what the customer wants, and where producers and/or users undertake specialized investments to produce the product or service in question, the market is likely to be a poor way to organize production, and instead production is likely best handled in-house. Of course, readers will recognize that important parts of what government buys -- weapons systems obviously, and many complex IT systems -- are of exactly the sort Williamson argues are less appropriate for contracting in the first place. We should not, therefore, be surprised that contracting for such products and services is difficult, though Williamson also discusses some ways to manage relationships when customers do buy from the outside.

There are also some public administration scholars who work on contracting, but by and large they have not gone much beyond Williamson's framework. Interestingly, one sees among these scholars the same kind of debates about trust and control one sees in practical government procurement policy debates. Perhaps the best book by public-administration academics on government contracting is Trevor Brown, Matt Potoski, and Dave Van Slyke's book on the Coast Guard Deepwater project, Complex Contracting.

At any rate ... as I indicated in my last blog post, I am in the very early stages of delving into these academic waters, starting to think about preparing a course, or a short course (we call it a module), for the Harvard Kennedy School on managing procurement. I will keep blog readers posted as I proceed.

Meanwhile, I would like to solicit suggestions -- from practitioners (contracting and program management), academics and others -- about what I should include in this course. Where does the government most need to get better? What would you yourself like to know more about? What should a newbie learn? Are there case studies you would recommend, both good and bad? All suggestions welcomed!

Posted by Steve Kelman on May 09, 2014 at 10:27 AM

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Reader comments

Thu, May 15, 2014 Jon Johnson

Al...thank you. Yes this one is helpful. I ordered the books that Steve mentioned and this will be added to my portfolio. I came to the same conclusion that Mr. Nash indicated in terms of acquisition planning which will be one of the most interesting parts of any study. Was the plan wrong or the execution? On a different not I wonder what the application of Nunn-McCrudy will have on IT acquisitions as is being discussed now. Steve - lots of open fields on this one. It will keep you busy through retirement (not that academics ever retire).

Thu, May 15, 2014 Stevwe Kelman

Al, thanks for the tip -- am downloading the paper! Ralph Nash, I'm honored you have "joined" the blog. Really grateful for all comments and help!

Wed, May 14, 2014 Al

This may be of some interest to Jon Johnson

Tue, May 13, 2014 Steve Kelman

Want to thank commenters to this blog, others posting on my Facebook page, and people sending me private emails with advice and suggestions!!!

Tue, May 13, 2014 John Inman Williston, Vermont

Hi, Steve -- (1) Teach that contracting should be seen as a core competency for an agency that accomplishes a meaningful part of its mission through buying goods and services, not a backwater. (2) Teach the importance of discretion and explore why agency leaders are afraid of allowing their subprdinates to exercise discretion. (3) Teach that contracting is as much an art as a science, maybe more so, and that agency leaders should seek out real leaders for their contracting organizations -- leaders who know the difference between a FAR Subpart 8.4 acquisition and a 16.505 acquisition, for example, and who can tell these apart from a Subpart 15.3 acquisition -- they are different, you know, but so many practicioners and leaders in our field can't tell the difference. (4) Teach that numerous levels of bureaucratic review stifle any possibility of innovation or reasonable risk-taking or exercise of discretion -- ask them to count the number of reviewers between a contracting officer and the agency head designee who approves an acquisition plan or something like that. Good luck!

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