By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Good enough for government work?

Excellence (Image: Shutterstock)

I am guessing that most every blog reader has heard the somewhat-contemptuous phrase, "good enough for government work," used to discuss production that is mediocre at best and slipshod at worst. What few know, however, is the origin of this phrase, as discussed by Doris Kearns Goodwin in No Ordinary Time, her 1995 book about the home front during World War II.

It turns out that the original meaning of this phrase was the exact opposite of the meaning it has since been given. Originally, it described war production that was done to such exacting quality and performance standards that it could be used by the military to help win the war. Originally, the way the phrase was pronounced was not with the accent on "enough" (good enough for government work), but on "good" (good enough for government work).

I take up that story in this post for two reasons. One is that my current year-end vacation has prompted me to think about this story again, and to apply it to government folks who are managing important procurement contracts. The second is that the story should prompt, I think, a New Year's resolution.

I have been thinking about the origin of this phrase again while on vacation in Miami (yes, fellow Northeasterners, it's been in the seventies and low eighties). As is my wont, I've been reading lighter books -- including Look Homeward Angel, by the great-but-now-somewhat-forgotten novelist Thomas Wolfe (not to be confused with Tom Wolfe), and David McCollough's epic 1977 yarn on the construction of the Panama Canal, The Path Between the Seas.

Toward the end of McCullough's book, he discusses the last major step in completing the canal: construction of the locks that would allow ships to proceed through various elevations along the route. The contractor selected to develop the electrical system for the locks was General Electric. At this point, McCullough writes, GE was a "still young, still comparatively small" firm. This was the very beginning of the age of electricity; the first factory electrification in the U.S. had occurred only a year earlier.

Succeeding with this contract was crucial to GE. This was not merely the company's "first large government contract." Its performance would receive worldwide attention; it was "a chance like none other to display the virtues of electric power."

How did GE react? The company set up a special department, with hand-picked employees "concentrated solely on the Panama project. Company employees were sent to the isthmus to become thoroughly familiar with all aspects of the problem.

According to McCullough, "the result was an unqualified success." The company had produced a product good enough for government work."

I bring up this example to encourage creative thinking by federal managers about the important procurement projects in which they are involved. Do you have any where the contractor's success (or failure) would have an impact beyond that one contractual relationship with the government?

If yes, you should consider how to structure the business relationship to take advantage of this. Should you be assigning more contract administration and performance tracking resources to increase the broader visibility of the contractor's performance on the contract? Should you be announcing planned enhanced performance reporting on the contract in the RFP? Are there benefits to the government that you should ask bidders to consider -- including a lower price -- due to the contract's wider significance?

Thinking about this phrase also suggested to me a New Year's resolution for all of us. We all know the meaning this phrase has taken on. What about promising to remind those we deal with of the original meaning, and to look for and highlight examples of work that is good enough for the original meaning of the term?

To adapt a phrase from debates about the meaning of constitutionalist phrases, perhaps we should brand ourselves as "good enough for government work originalists," who cherish the original usage and want what the government produces to be good enough to warrant the original meaning. So in promoting the phrase, good enough for government work, we are both expressing an ideal and also an aspiration for how government needs to get better to realize that ideal.

With that, I send all blog readers best wishes for 2018.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Jan 02, 2018 at 11:44 AM


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