The Lectern


Steve Kelman

Lectern

By Steve Kelman

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Getting employees involved in cost cutting

Jim Tisdale, a smart, dedicated contracting legal advisor at an Air Force base in Los Angeles, often sends me emails commenting on my blog posts, asking my opinion on contracting developments, or sharing his thoughts. It's always a pleasure to hear from him.
 
The other day, responding to something I had sent him, he shared with me a cost-savings idea for the government that, with his permission, I am sharing in this post.

The idea is a simple one. When a federal employees travel, they can use negotiated rates the government has set up with local hotels, that are all priced under the government per diem. (These hotel discounts are not contracts with the government, and have no minimum order to obtain the rate.)  Jim's idea is that employees who can get a lower rate on a hotel -- say, through Priceline -- they should be able to keep half the difference between the published negotiated rate and the rate the employee pays.
 
I suggested an additional tweak on this to Jim, which he endorsed -- that if the employee bills the government for less than the maximum per diem for meals, the employee similarly be able to keep half the difference.
 
I raise Jim's example for a bunch of reasons. First, while this proposal would make only the smallest of impacts on the deficit, the cost to the government of getting these savings is zero -- it's pure deficit reduction. Second, I like the idea of putting this cost-saving activity in the hands of employees, because once they start helping save money, it gets them in the spirit to make other efforts as well. Third, Jim's cost-savings idea nicely reflects the cost-saving elements of the contracting culture, which I have urged many times be brought to the fore in the current fiscal environment.
 
I wonder if anybody can suggest other similar share-in-savings ideas for federal employees. Like all share-in-savings approaches, you need a baseline, and you need to make sure that you don't save money just by making performance worth -- the beauty of Jim's idea is that it passes both of those tests. Feds and others, more suggestions?

Posted on Feb 14, 2012 at 7:27 PM11 comments


The new generation and the media -- curiouser and curiouser

Okay, I am fully aware that I am a media dinosaur. I have hard copies of The New York Times and The Financial Times home delivered each morning. I get hard copy subscriptions to The Economist and Business Week. Frankly, my major online news source is fcw.com, although I have recently started finding myself clicking through to maybe 5 or 10 links a week from Facebook friends that I see on my status update page.

But in viewing the media habits of young people who are interested in following the news (such as my students), I have assumed that few if any of them would read the hard copy of a newspaper, but that instead they would "read" a paper (such as The New York Times) online – probably not as carefully as somebody reads a hard copy paper, but more like skimming headlines. They would probably read some blogs. And now more and more they would be getting news by clicking to Facebook links.

Well, I had an interesting conversation at dinner with a Public Policy Fellow at LMI, the non-profit consulting company that works on improving government management, on whose Board of Directors I sit. LMI has about five such fellows a year, newly minted grads of public administration and public policy programs. I can't remember exactly how we got on the topic, but we got into a conversation about how he gets his news, which he said was common among people his age who like to follow current affairs.

The most-surprising part of the conversation was that although he follows current affairs very closely, basically he didn't look at a daily newspaper, even online, at all. He regarded the expression "read a newspaper" as a phrase belonging to his parents' generation, and indeed the very word "newspaper" seemed old-fashioned to him. Instead, he checks through 15 to 25 different blogs in the course of a day, to get different views and insights about what's going on in the world. Sources such as CNN.com, the Times or Post were not more credible for him than the sum of the blogs he reads. Interestingly, he kept using words like "opinion" and "point of view" to describe what he was looking for, rather than words such as "reporting" or "analysis" that I (and I suspect many of those in my generation who follow the news) would tend to use to describe what I am looking for.

After the dinner, I spoke with another board member about my conversation. She reported recently asking students in a course (at a Washington, D.C.-area university) to prepare material from the media comparing U.S. departures from Iraq and Afghanistan. Apparently, The Washington Post had run an article (or articles) on exactly this topic only a short time before -- yet none of the students used the Post as one of their media sources.

BTW, my conversation partner said he didn't use Facebook status update links very much as a source of news. However, when I mentioned that I had started using it a lot he smiled (in a nice way), indicating that for him "didn't use very much" translated to far more than my pathetic 5 to 10 times.

Posted on Feb 10, 2012 at 7:27 PM3 comments


FUD surrounds cloud computing procurement process

Recently Alan Joch wrote a piece on the FCW website, called "Is Government Procurement Ready for the Cloud?" The piece was one of the five-most read and emailed on the FCW website for two days running.
 
"Many IT procurement practices and contracting vehicles," Alan wrote, "were designed to help managers provision hardware and software, not on-demand services. Can the current acquisition practices translate easily to the dynamic world of cloud computing?" The article quoted a technical manager at DHS who was worried about the ability of the procurement system to accommodate to cloud computing, though it also quoted Larry Allen, longtime head of the Coalition for Government Procurement, which represents vendors on the GSA schedules, saying he didn't see a problem.
 
What was frustrating about the article, frankly, was the lack of specifics. The only actual example of a "procurement problem" the article cited was a protest over a requirement in one procurement that, for security reasons, the cloud infrastructure be hosted in the US. That requirement is not a "procurement problem'; it is a policy decision about risk that the procuring agency made.  (Maybe the procurement problem was the ability to protest. One may have different views about bid protests, and I am hardly known as one of the great supporters of protests, but this is hardly a special problem the procurement system has in buying cloud computing.)
 
The article was an example of a genre of statements that one often hears about how rigidities in the procurement system create barriers to buying certain kinds of products and services. Often, these statements are not accompanied by examples of specific problems. They appeal to, and exacerbate, a climate of fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) that many in the government feel when they are going to have to deal with the procurement system.
 
It is possible that there are procurement regulations or practices that throw roadblocks in the way of intelligent procurement of cloud computing services. If so, I hope blog readers will post comments saying what they are -- which will offer progressive people in the procurement system the opportunity to put on their thinking caps to see if ways to unblock these obstacles can be found. But all too often, consumers of the procurement system get paralyzed by worries of roadblocks they think the system creates that in fact aren't there. The fear also makes it more difficult for program people constructively and collegially to deal with their counterparts in procurement or, worse, to avoid the procurement system until the last moment -- like getting an infected tooth pulled -- which only makes things much worse.
 
Program and technical customers, and folks in contracting shops, need to realize they are part of the same team and to work to overcome the FUD factor.

Posted on Feb 02, 2012 at 7:27 PM5 comments


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