n a recent issue of National Journal, reporter Sydney Freedberg wrote about the phenomenon of the $600 hammer, the icon of Defense Department waste and incompetence that inspired the Hammer Awards Vice President Al Gore hands out to agencies for improving their management practices.
References to the ridiculously overpriced hammer have been a staple of reporting on the Pentagon's procurement practices for years. A quick search of the Lexis-Nexis database of news reports turned up more than two dozen stories published in just the past five years that included the phrase "$600 hammer." And that doesn't include the many other articles that attached different, but similarly outrageous, prices to hammers, toilet seats, screwdrivers and other items bought by DoD organizations.
The only problem, Freedberg noted, was that there never was a $600 hammer. It was "an accounting artifact," said Steven Kelman, former head of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.
Unfortunately, it's difficult to explain exactly why the hammer wasn't as expensive as it's been made out to be. (It has to do with the fact that the hammer, originally $15, was assigned the same amount of research and development overhead as other highly technical components on a particular spare parts list.)
And that points to the central difficulty media organizations have in reporting on the performance of government: The real story often turns out to be one only a green eye-shaded auditor could love. In the case of the hammer, for example, the real issue is not why the Pentagon wasted $600 on a simple tool, but why it used an accounting system that allocated R&D expenses in such a cockeyed fashion.
The story on the Patent and Trademark Office in this issue presents a similar example. Last September, ABC's "World News Tonight" reported on the PTO's effort to consolidate its Washington-area offices by signing a $1.6 billion lease for a new facility.
In the piece, which took less than two minutes of airtime, ABC reporter James Walker hit the usual hot buttons. PTO, he said, was set to pay $100 apiece for wastebaskets and $1,000 for coat racks for the new facility. In a particularly cute touch, Walker hunted all over New York for a boutique that sold shower curtains for the $250 he said PTO was prepared to pay for them. Finally, Walker noted, after the agency's lease was up in 20 years, what would the government get for its money? "Nothing."
The report missed the point. The prices for the items cited, were, like the $600 hammer, accounting anomalies, according to PTO officials. And of course the government, like any renter, will get "nothing" at the end of its lease--that's the nature of leasing. The real story is why Congress wouldn't approve the purchase or construction of a new building, or a lease-purchase arrangement, under which the government would eventually own the building. (Hint: All the money for such arrangements must be appropriated up front.)
This isn't to suggest that news organizations never do subtle, nuanced reports about the performance of federal agencies. Stephen Barr of The Washington Post has spent several years doing in-depth stories on federal management and efforts to improve it. The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have run groundbreaking pieces leading to real reforms in various departments. But it's hard to get such stories in print or on the air without a hook to draw in readers and viewers.
Take the special issue you're reading right now. We knew that getting readers to pay attention to the Government Performance Project required that we assign agencies grades to rate their performance.
After we posted an announcement about our participation in the project on our Web site, GovExec.com, some readers let us know they weren't thrilled with the idea of issuing ratings.
"Government is not high school; grading management practices is of questionable value," one wrote in an e-mail. "Limited dollars and limited resources, political considerations and lobbying pressures, competing priorities and a system which, of necessity, promotes technical competence over managerial competence, all result in complexities too great to capture in a letter or number grade.
"If you are so superior that you know how government should be managed, join the fray!"
Of course the GPP team--which paired Government Executive with Syracuse University's highly regarded Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs--hopes that readers will view the grades in the context of the long experience the partners have in examining government and the meticulous reporting that characterized this particular exercise.
But our e-mail correspondent's points are well taken. The challenges faced by agencies, and their capacity to handle them, are too complicated to be summed up with homilies about $600 hammers or $250 shower curtains--or by simple letter grades. If news organizations fail to take seriously their responsibility to provide the fullest information possible about how government really works (and why it doesn't), then they ill-serve not only those civil servants who are in "the fray," but the public as well.