Mocking Public Service

National Public Service Award

Just in time for the national Public Service Recognition Week, Saturday Night Live aired a biting satire:  “The 2010 Public Employee of the Year Award.” In the skit, several finalists for the award strut their stuff.  For example, a fictitious Markeesha Odom says she helped lead her DMV team to ensure no one received a drivers license over the course of a full day!  And the fictitious ceremony was held in a filled hall in Harrah’s in Las Vegas (which Sen. Harry Reid would approve!).

An ongoing dialogue on GovLoop swings between bemusement and outrage over the skit, but the skit reached a national audience.  Meanwhile, two weeks ago, the National Public Service Award was presented to five distinguished public servants.  The presentation was made in San Jose at a small luncheon during the conference of the American Society for Public Administration.  However, distinguished participants in the ceremony included both former Comptroller General David Walker and former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker.  Recipients include:

  • the current head of the Office of Personnel Management, John Berry;
  • veteran city manager Ted Gaebler;
  • GAO veteran Sallyanne Harper;
  • a scientist at NIH, Kenneth Kraemer; and
  • Bernard Melekian, a former police chief and current head of the Justice Department’s community policing program.

The award has been given since 1983 as a way of recognizing the heroes in public service.  But it hasn’t received much media attention.

Nevertheless, the effort to recognize public service, however, is making progress.  President Obama talks about “making public service cool again.”  The Partnership for Public Service annually presents its Service to America Medals at a grand celebration each Fall in Washington to recognize accomplishments.  And more recently, Senator Ted Kaufman has been recognizing “Great Feds” weekly in the Congressional Record, and the Washington Post has been weekly recognizing federal employees in its “Federal Players” column.

In addition, the IBM Center’s weekly radio show has showcased a different federal executive every week, for the past decade.  So I guess I shouldn’t complain too much.  But the timing of the SNL skit may have been a bit much for me!

Signs of Procurement Revolution

The Senate confirmed Dan Gordon as the administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy in the Office of Management and Budget.  He comes highly recommended by Steve Kelman, a former holder of this job who was acclaimed as an innovator.

The procurement arena in federal agencies has been under a lot of attack in recent years with some calling it a “toxic environment.”  The Obama Administration has made contract reform one of its top management goals and it has issued lots of guidance in its first year.  In addition, the procurement community is facing major challenges in rebuilding itself in the wake of retirements and downsizing in the past decade.

But there are rays of hope! 

A recent article by Federal Computer Week’s Nick Wakeman, “Five Signs Procurement Is Ready for a Revolution,” cites John Nyce from Interior, who says “We are at a point where we can make some game changing decisions:”

  • Shared services organizations that support procurement activities have to get better at serving their customers;
  • The younger acquisition workforce expects technology to be there to get their jobs done;
  • Market analysis information will now come from multiple sources;
  • Agencies will have to be more efficient since there is a shortage of contract officers; and
  • Communication is increasing across agency contract shops, allowing for cooperation and the sharing of best practices.

A good example is the growing, self-organizing community of procurement officers on GovLoop, “Acquisition 2.0,” where they are beginning to trade ideas for how to improve operations.  The GovLoop champion, GSA’s Mary Davie, says she was inspired to launch a site to collect good ideas, called the BetterBuyProject.com, and she says she’ll try out some of the ideas offered on the site, within her own agency to see if they merit broader attention.

While a small step, the willingness of the contracting community to step up to the plate is an encouraging sign.  Dan Gordon will have a pool of innovators to inspire!

Acquisition 2.0

OMB yesterday released its latest guidance on federal acquisition.  This new guidance, Increasing Competition and Structuring Contracts for the Best Results, provides guidelines for agencies to move to more competitive and lower risk types of contracts, along with semi-annual reports on progress.

But it is worth standing back and looking at some of the one-the-ground trends that are evolving in the acquisition community.  A very good article by Federal Computer Week’s Matthew Wiegart, “2.0 Takes Hold in the Acquisition Community,” provides just such a perspective.

In his article, he describes several examples of what is being called “Acquisition 2.0.” 

The first is the creation of self-organizing discussion groups.  The best known is the on-line forum hosted by GovLoop.  The informal champion is GSA’s assistant commissioner Mary Davie. This forum discusses trends in hiring acquisition professionals, ways of responding to bid protests, and ways to meet government goals for “greening” procurement.

The second is the Better Buy Project. Also championed by Davie, this project is a discussion group co-sponsored by several organizations with the goal of identifying ways of improving the first phase of the acquisition process, known as the “pre-award phase.”  Here, the goal is to draw on the broader acquisition community, both inside and outside the government, to identify best practices and innovative ideas.

The third is the use of on-line training and virtual mentoring. Agencies are increasing their hiring of acquisition specialists (OMB’s goal is a 5 percent increase by 2014) and the demand for training and mentoring is increasing as well.  Agencies are beginning to use on-line training and videos of retiring acquisition experts to bring new staff up to speed.  This follows a similar pattern in commercial industry.

In addition, there seems to be a fourth trend — trying innovative ways of doing things.  A great example is offered by former administrator of the governmentwide Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP), Steve Kelman.  He describes how some researchers are piloting the use of prediction markets to see if they can improve cost and schedule forecasts in federal acquisition programs.  This is reminiscent of how the District of Columbia managed its portfolio of technology projects using a shadow “stock market” of these projects.

However, even with these examples of new openness and innovation, another former administrator of OFPP, Dee Lee, says that, more broadly, acquisition employees are scared and in a defensive crouch because of the general climate of distrust and criticism from Congress, watchdog groups, and the inspectors general.  She says that the administration has to provide leadership if it wants to overcome this climate and expand the use of Acquisition 2.0 approaches.  Maybe this new champion will be the recently nominated head of OFPP, Dan Gordon.  Kelman seems to think so, based on an effusive blog he wrote about Gordon’s nomination!