Buy Lines: We need room for human error

Stan Soloway

If ever the times demanded a culture of real innovation, that time is now. Tight budgets, ever-expanding missions and extraordinary human resource challenges have created unique and unrelenting tests for federal agencies.

Regrettably, evidence suggests that today's hostile and politicized procurement environment is anything but supportive of innovation. We hear this from government and industry professionals working on Iraq contracts, from those working with or for the Federal Supply Schedules and Federal Technology Service, and from those trying to implement just those flexible features that were created to encourage innovative business models. We also hear about it from companies facing new and unwarranted certification requirements, expanded pre- and post-award audit demands and more.

And the glare of media and congressional scrutiny dramatically magnifies problems that, while real, often are not nearly as scandalous as the attention suggests.

Ironically, even officials from the General Services Administration's Inspector General's office acknowledged at a recent Professional Services Council meeting that they, too, are seeing an acquisition workforce that is increasingly afraid to make decisions, let alone mistakes.

In truth, there is no epidemic of abuse to justify such a difficult environment. The government each year executes more than 34 million contract actions and spends more than $300 billion on goods and services.

By any objective measure, the acquisition system works quite well. There are certainly abuses, but they remain the exception.

Even the Defense Department's review of more than 400 contracts touched by former Air Force acquisition official Darleen Druyun resulted in only a tiny fraction warranting additional review. Further, while overall management, including contract management, remains a major challenge for the government, management problems rarely result from nefarious intent.

But when problems arise, objectivity typically disappears, and overreaction is common. Sadly, we rarely see senior agency officials standing with those whose mistakes are in the spotlight, defending not only their intentions and integrity but also the importance of reasonable risk taking and innovative thinking. This is where real leadership comes in.

In 1998, then-Secretary of Defense Bill Cohen provided such leadership. Facing a Congressional demand for "heads to roll" because of a spare parts pricing scandal, he said in a statement broadcast throughout the Defense Department that no one was being fired, because "we want you to be thinking about pursuing innovation, not punishing honest errors."

It was a simple line in a much longer speech, but it resonated with the workforce in a way few such speeches do -- it set a tone and sent an important message. That tone and that message are all but absent today.

Encouraging innovation does not equal tolerating unreasonable risks, bypassing accountability or ceding oversight. But it cannot be risk-free, and it does require a tolerance of honest failures.

In that spirit, next time a serious, honest error occurs, it would be refreshing to see other members of Congress join Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) in challenging those who exaggerate the issue and vilify well-intended professionals. It would be equally refreshing to see senior agency officials stand with the affected workforce rather than step away. Doing so would send a crucial message of support and encouragement to the workforce, and will, in a small but important way, improve the government's ability to redress its tough human capital challenge, which today is exacerbated by an all too often hostile work environment.

Woody Allen once said, "If you're not failing every now and again, it's a sign you're not doing anything very innovative." His message was simple. Expecting and embracing failure is essential if you want innovation. That's leadership. That's what we need.

Stan Soloway is president of the Professional Services Council. His e-mail is soloway@pscouncil.org.

About the Author

Stan Soloway is president and chief executive officer of the Professional Services Council.

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