How to get permission to fail

Agencies can undertake risky projects, but they should expect Congress to be watching closely and demanding accountability.

“If the appropriators know, if Congress knows, going in that this is a gamble, it’s subject to a very different kind oversight,” compared with a project with definite outcomes, “It’s a different kind of calculation.”

Agencies can sometimes take on risky projects, the sort of projects that have a high risk of failure -- if they're willing to accept the level of oversight Congress is bound to put on such a venture, said Margaret Daum, staff director for the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s Contracting Oversight Subcommittee.

Daum, speaking today as part of a panel discussion at the Interagency Resource Management Conference (IRMCO), said Congress will want a much greater level of detail about such projects, and what they may ultimately yield if successful, than they would about a more mundane initiative, she said.


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Asked how agencies "get permission to fail” on innovative projects, Daum said any idea that could lead to a result which improves the government's operations is worth considering. At the same time, agencies should expect Congress to carry out tight oversight of such a project, looking for safeguards and demanding accountability from officials.

Lawmakers want to know that agency officials are “making sure the government has the protections it needs so the whole thing doesn’t go to hell in a handbasket,” she said.

Stan Soloway, president and CEO of the Professional Services Council and panel moderator, said people in the government acquisition field have major concerns about how oversight works and how inspectors general and congressional committees carry out their work. They are concerned about how their close supervision is becoming a hindrance, and even a threat, to innovation.

In a survey of acquisition and oversight officials released last November, 86 percent of 33 respondents from various federal sectors said more of their money goes to oversight than to contract administration, as they also say oversight continues to increase.

Meanwhile, the government is pushing for a workforce that is innovative and always thinking of new and better ways to operate.

“Our folks are concerned about how to build a workforce when they believe they will take a hit when things go south,” Soloway said. Still, there’s the push to be on cutting edge with new ideas.

Daum said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), the subcommittee's chairwoman, will continue to aggressively go after waste and abuses of tax money.

“You know that if someone is poking around at what you’re doing, they may find stuff and it may blow up,” she said.

Meanwhile, it's Congress’ job to oversee. About that, Daum said, “Sorry. That’s what we do.”

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