Steve Kelman has said that I?m a contrarian. He said it after I pooh-poohed the idea of the government holding contests and awarding prizes to encourage its employees to come up with new ideas to save money and promote ?open government,? i.e., ?transparency,? the new buzzword. OMB has issued 12 pages (!) of guidance about it. See OMB M-10-11, Guidance on the Use of Challenges and Prizes to Promote Open Government. http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/memoranda_default/. I said that such ideas are ?middle school? and demeaning to professionals. Steve said that they were no such thing, because one of the prizes is getting to meet the president. Celebrity worship--I think that proves my point. I like the president, but I don't need an offer to meet him to motivate me to propose a way for my agency to improve its work. In any event, if prizes work so well, why not just bring back Al Gore?s ?Silver Hammer? awards? Why reinvent the wheel?
I agree that I am a contrarian, but not for the sake of being one. I have a very low bull---- tolerance level. I guess that?s because in my 36 years in this business I have gotten sick of the gimmicks promoted by presidential appointees seeking quick fixes. Here?s how they work: first, there is the announcement of the next new big thing, often called an ?initiative,? launched to correct some long-standing problem; then there is the soon-to-follow announcement of the initiative?s success in doing whatever it was supposed to do, with congratulations all around, but usually without verifiable supporting data; then there are awards and photo ops; then a new administration comes in and the last administration?s initiative is the old new big thing and you don?t hear about it for a while. The cycle begins again with the announcement of the new administration's next new big thing, designed to fix the problem that the old new big thing did not fix. After a bit, we read complaints about abuses arising out of the old new big thing of the last administration, which requires another new initiative to fix.
Where are Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain, and Groucho Marx now that we really need them?
I don?t question the sincerity of the people who initiate and promote such reforms. I believe that they really want to make things better. I only criticize their methods and lack of commitment.
An important reason for this kind of namby pamby management is the nature of our government, with its four-year presidential administrations, it?s two-year election cycles (President Obama will begin campaigning for re-election next year), its presidential appointee management structure, and its partisan and lengthy Senate advice and consent appointment approval process. It all leads to a kind of management attention deficit disorder (MADD). We start things, but we don?t finish them⎯Management By Objectives, Zero Defects, Total Quality Management, Reinvention, Continuous Process Improvement, Performance Management and Metrics, et cetera, et cetera. Some people advance their careers by getting on board and going along for the ride, becoming a resident ?expert" and making PowerPoint presentations. (There are many people who have never seen a gimmick that they did not like or a bandwagon that they would not ride.) This kind of thing yields unverified and sometimes unverifiable claims of ?success,? but little if any deep and lasting improvement, and it creates cynicism, a lot of cynicism. By the time most people reach the end of their government careers they have seen it all, much of it at least twice, though fronted by different names and faces, and their reaction to the latest new big thing is to yawn.
For example: The Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics has issued a memo to ?acquisition professionals? dated June 28 and entitled, Better Buying Power: Mandate for Restoring Affordability and Productivity in Defense Spending. http://www.acq.osd.mil/docs/USD(AT&L)_...une_28_2010.pdf. (Restoring? When was it ever?) The memo announces an ?initiative? that asks acquisition professionals to find ways to reduce the costs of defense programs by identifying savings. D?j? vu all over again.
I wish I had a list of all of the DOD reform ?initiatives? I have seen in the course of my career. My favorite was the program launched by Deputy Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci in 1981: the ?Defense Acquisition Improvement Program,? popularly known as the ?Carlucci Initiatives.? There were 32 of them. You can read about the program in GAO?s 1986 report: GAO-NSIAD-86-148, DOD?s Defense Acquisition Improvement Program: A Status Report (July 1986), which you can find by Googling ?Defense Acquisition Improvement Program? and then downloading it from the acc.dau.mil website. A list of the individual initiatives which comprised the program appear in Appendix IV. They were all worthwhile, but one paragraph of the GAO report reflects both the intractability of acquisition problems and the shortness of management?s attention span:
We believe that the initial sense of commitment to the improvement program has dissipated. A strong DOD commitment is particularly crucial to achieving results because the problems being addressed are longstanding and not amenable to ready solutions When announcing the reform package, the Deputy Secretary of Defense made a strong commitment to implementation. In fact, one of the initiatives was to ensure implementation of the program. The implementation approach included establishing plans of action and monitoring progress. We found, however, that DOD has not carried through with its action plans on most of the program?s initiatives, and is not monitoring actions to ensure that results are being achieved.
That was written in 1986, slightly more than three years after Frank Carlucci left DOD. Once its appointee-sponsor was gone, the Carlucci Initiatives died quickly. In 1990, referring to the Carlucci Initiatives in yet another report about yet another DOD management initiative, GAO said that the Carlucci Initiatives had ?failed.? See GAO/NSIAD-91-11, Acquisition Reform: Defense Management Report Savings Initiatives (December 1990). http://archive.gao.gov/d21t9/142879.pdf. (The Defense Management Report referred to in the title was the report of the President?s Blue Ribbon Commission on Defense Management, the so-called ?Packard Commission.? The Packard Commission?s report did, however, yield at least one improvement: the ?streamlining? of acquisition by reducing the number of acquisition personnel. That made everybody happy. Right?) Two-year electoral campaign cycles, short-term presidential appointments, entrenched interests, inexpert managers, the need to show quick results for political gain, reliance on gimmicks, phony ?success stories,? and the lack of long-term commitment to the hard work of real and deep reform are at the heart of our acquisition problems.
There is only one real solution to the problems in acquisition: the creation and maintenance of a truly top-notch professional class of career program managers, contracting officers, and contracting officer representatives⎯people with deep professional knowledge, extensive practical know-how and skill, business acumen, respect for law and regulation, professional self-respect, and unimpeachable integrity⎯well-educated and trained, literate and well-read, articulate, and able and willing to accept responsibility and to be held accountable--an elite corps in the very best sense of the word.
But our chance of even starting to develop a true professional class of acquisition managers during this presidential administration is nil. The president has too many other things on his plate and we have no visionary leaders in acquisition. The current hiring binge combined with fourth-rate classroom and on-the-job training and an unbalanced workforce structure (not enough purchasing agents and procurement clerks) probably means that we won?t get started for at least another generation. My hope is that the new generation coming on board today will recognize and understand the problem and commit itself, once it reaches the managerial ranks, to taking on the challenge that its predecessors did not, and that it will not be distracted from the main task by short-term "managers" with big but half-baked ideas. As I said in another article I wrote recently, quoting from an 18th century English poem entitled, "Namby Pamby":
Yes, but don?t be led from the main task by people with high-sounding titles. Your task will be to create a first-rate professional corps worthy of conducting the public?s business--a generation better than your own. We are in a $500 billion/year business financed by taxpayers. It?s worth the effort, which will be hard.
So I dedicate this piece to the young interns that I have met and will meet. I hope that when they read it they will know that what I write and what I say I write and say for them, so that they won?t fall under the spell of the gimmick promoters and bandwagon drivers, who are very seductive. The road to mediocrity is paved by well-spoken people with good intentions and short-term objectives. To the interns I say: Teach yourself to think and then think hard and deeply about everything you see, hear, and read. Read widely and deeply in your field. Question what you are told. Be skeptical, but open-minded. Learn to say ?Prove it.? Most importantly, for every half-baked idea that you criticize, offer a well-thought-out and well-developed idea of your own. If you do those things, and if you have energy and determination enough to act and lead others to act, you will have a chance to make real improvements and a real difference. The real prize will come when you look back and say, I made a positive and long-lasting difference.