Within the Scope

Blogging on Administrative Law and the Public Sector

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Moving Toward the Right Procurement Agenda – For Congress and For Us

Steven L. Schooner, Associate Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Government Procurement Law Program at George Washington University, recently posted to the Social Science Research Network a chapter from a forthcoming book: “Framing a Public Management Research Agenda.”

For those who are interested in government acquisition issues, this is a really interesting and worthwhile read. And, folks like me, who are alumni of the program, can take genuine pride in the fact that such clear and incisive analysis continues to spring from Foggy Bottom.

Consider this provocative shot across the federal regulatory bow:
While a successful procurement regime depends upon high standards of integrity and compliance, a pervasive ‘corruption control’ focus not only stifles creativity and encourages mechanical rule adherence, but encourages timidity and risk-averse behavior. Kelman hits close to the mark in his prediction that public managers (or procurement professionals) over the next decade: “rather than transforming, learning, and challenging themselves … could be preoccupied with 'ferreting' out waste, fraud and abuse, … 'exposing mismanagement,' … 'complying with rules and procedures' … in a mode of 'hunkering down' and 'keeping out of trouble[.]”
The imperative to address this public management challenge thoughtfully and well is great. The federal government now undertakes nearly $500 billion in contracting with private firms each year – with a spending trend line that is on the rise. In such an environment, centering on ‘keeping out of trouble’ is not where I would have procurement professionals aim.

This past November, Schooner and others gathered for a conference in Washington to wrangle over this question, and others – a matter that is all to the good. For me, however, the far more difficult challenge is how we could prompt Congressional committees to take the time out for work on these complicated riddles. I wondered what it would take to get Capitol Hill to focus on some of the questions that were debated at the conference; such as:

• How can the government systematically evaluate its acquisition workforce needs and capabilities?

• How does government assess the impact of an acquisition workforce development program on acquisition outcomes? How will government know if it is successful?

• How significant are the transaction costs resulting from the administration’s commitment to transparency (generally, and specifically in the context of stimulus or recovery spending), and who will bear those costs?

• How can government develop and define better metrics on acquisition outcomes?

To me, the idea that Congressional committees would venture into these thickets – even as weighty as these questions are – seemed other worldly. Still, we can dream; and cajole; and thank Professor Schooner for such a worthwhile start – which is accessible here.