Kelman: Changes of mind on the GSA scandal

Steve Kelman gauges how his students felt about the GSA conference spending scandal before and then after taking part of a course on management and leadership.

Steve Kelman

In my last blog post, I discussed preparing a class in my introductory management and leadership course for Kennedy School master’s students on the implications of the GSA conference scandal from last spring for how government is organized and managed – in particular how problems like this, and the way the media report them, places a premium in government management on control. (A student from GSA in an executive education program post-scandal reported needing to get 10 signoffs on travel expenses to come, even after participation in the program had been approved.)

I started the class with two quick polls. First I asked those students who had followed the scandal when it broke last spring what their initial reaction had been, with the three alternatives being:

  1. This is terrible, and it’s typical for how government agencies behave;
  2. This is terrible, but it’s not typical for how government agencies behave;
  3. The media is presenting this as a much bigger problem than it really is.

I then gave them the same three alternatives for their views as of the start of the class, after taking their management course so far this semester and reading the background materials on the scandal (the IG report, television coverage, Martha Johnson’s resignation, some congressional testimony, and some “leaked” conference videos from Huffington Post).

The responses were interesting. Their reactions from last spring were:

  • 21 percent terrible and typical;
  • 61 percent terrible but not typical;
  • 18 percent media exaggerating the problem.

After taking part of the management course and reading the material, their opinions had evolved somewhat, though not dramatically:

  • 13 percent terrible and typical;
  • 69 percent terrible but not typical;
  • 19 percent media exaggeration.

To put it mildly, I make no claim that these views – especially the initial reactions from last spring – are representative of the American people. But, especially given that we see a problem of skepticism about government among our students that parallels, although at a much lower level, currents in society as a whole, it was interesting to me that only 20 percent of our students had thought these events were terrible and typical, which to me is good news.

I had the students talk among themselves about the poll results, putting one student from the media-exaggeration camp into each group, and then had the groups brief the whole class. The points the advocates of media exaggeration made that their fellow students found the most convincing were that this involved a tiny amount of money in the government’s budget, and that members of Congress who can’t agree on a deficit reduction deal should be the last to complain about waste at GSA.

We talked about media coverage. I showed them the Google hits I mentioned in my previous blog – that this scandal had gotten infinitely more media attention than the substantive issue GSA head Martha Johnson was spending her time on. One student stated that this was how the media covered business too. I noted that especially in recent years there has been far more critical and hard-hitting coverage of business, but the media still paid significant attention to reporting about quarterly earnings reports, new products, and the substance of the business, in a way that gets done less for government agencies. A student who had been a journalist argued that the media behaved this way because this was what people wanted to read or see – this was being driven by media consumers more than anything.

Finally I put this scandal into the context of what we had been studying about rules vs. empowering employees in the design of government organizations. This kind of environment – and also, as a student had noted in the previous class, the higher ethical standard to which government is held – produces a situation where control becomes a very large element of managing government organizations, and where rules and procedures are used to increase control even if they lower the ability to shine and do a good job.

How to manage in this environment, I asked the students?  A number of students were enamored of a reading I gave them by Robert Simons, writing 15 years ago in the Harvard Business Review about “management control in an age of empowerment.” Rules should set boundaries of the unethical and unacceptable, and tell people they must not go outside those boundaries, Simons argues. But inside the boundaries, give people as much room as possible. That is perhaps the wisest lesson to draw from a sad situation.

NEXT STORY: GSA's innovation aspirations

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