President Obama's directive to federal agencies to identify ways to improve federal contracting comes amidst the significant challenges of promptly and effectively implementing the stimulus package and balancing the competing pressures and controversies surrounding congressional spending priorities.
Some immediate actions can be taken to ensure that the stimulus dollars are responsibly and well spent even as broader initiatives to improve the efficiency and performance of government are pursued.
Although unprecedented in its magnitude, by its very nature, the stimulus bears real similarities to other emergency relief efforts, including Hurricane Katrina. Its mission is huge and immediate, results are desperately needed, and it comes with high expectations and the potential to substantially restore, or not, public confidence in the economy and the government. But this is Katrina on steroids. Thus, paying attention to the lessons of the past is critical.
These lessons have been repeatedly emphasized in Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports, post-Katrina analyses, and many reports by the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction (SIGIR), who recently stated again that some reconstruction efforts in Iraq were largely doomed from the beginning due principally to a lack of coordination, planning, work force capabilities and requirements definition at the front end.
In his recent testimony to the Wartime Contracting Commission, the inspector general said fraud and abuse, while present, were far less significant problems than many believe and the failure to address these other challenges were of far greater significance than most have acknowledged, let alone acted upon.
While after-the-fact accountability is an integral part of the process, compliance regimes do little to help a federal program manager, contracting officer, contractor or grantee deliver optimal results.
We know the stimulus will be executed in significant part through the federal acquisition system, which clearly faces a range of personnel and other challenges.
While the legislation includes some general procurement guidelines and funding for more contracting professionals (who themselves are only one, albeit critical, part of the acquisition work force), the real emphasis is not on the critical “front end” process and capabilities addressed in the GAO and special inspector general's reports. It is on back end compliance and accountability - some $200 million for auditors, $20 million for compliance officers, presupposing the benefits of fixed price contracting, and more.
Clearly, ensuring compliance and holding institutions and individuals accountable is necessary. But they are not the “tools” that drive performance and results. Yet, when the right tools are available and utilized, outcomes and performance are better and back-end audit and “oversight” processes are smoother and less burdensome.
Unfortunately, this critical lesson remains mostly unaddressed. Instead, we remain stuck in a dialogue dominated by discussion on how to increase compliance and catch the bad guys, who should be caught but are clearly the minority. We need to give equal, if not more energy, to new and better ways to support and enhance the capabilities of the good guys - the vast majority of federal civil servants, contractors and grantees who are doing their best to meet the government's needs.
Further, as recent surveys of the federal acquisition work force have revealed, at the very time we need a federal work force that feels empowered and supported, they actually feel stymied and undermined by what they perceive to be an almost single-minded, penurious overemphasis on after-the-fact checking.
The success of the stimulus may well hinge on our ability to address this very real imbalance by quickly engaging, at the highest levels of government, in a new and different dialogue. This effort requires fresh strategic thinking, about the scope and nature of skills, policies and organizational changes needed to enable success, the mix of contractor skills needed to help fill already evident gaps in federal capabilities, advance coordination with the oversight community, and much more.
Transparency, accountability and performance are the underpinnings of the Obama administration´s agenda. All three are vital, but it is the third - performance - that will do the most to deliver results and restore that confidence. Yet, it is currently also gets the least attention.
Nonetheless, the administration´s agenda, including the creation of the position of chief performance officer and the president´s recent memorandum on federal contracting, offer exciting opportunities to restore public confidence in, and improve the operations of, the federal government, let alone help get our economy back on track. And it creates a unique opportunity for a much needed, more holistic and balanced dialogue and action.
Given the stakes of the stimulus, we can ill afford to ignore the opportunity or the lessons behind it.
Steve Kelman is the Weatherhead Professor of Public Management at Harvard´s John F. Kennedy School of Government; he was administrator for Federal Procurement Policy in the Clinton administration. Stan Soloway is president and chief executive officer of the Professional Services Council and served as deputy undersecretary of defense in the Clinton administration.
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