Making Change

Never make predictions, Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn is said to have opined, especially about the future. Nonetheless, one prediction for the new millennium that appears to be pretty safe is that, as the pace of change in the federal environment continues to be torrid, and citizen dissatisfaction with government performance persists, demands on government organizations to change old ways of acting in favor of new ways that can deliver better results will continue and, most likely, grow.

At the same time, the difficulties of changing large, bureaucratic government organizations are legendary. Career employees are seen as tightly attached to old procedures and ready to wait out political appointees and "flavor-of-the-month" reforms. So one of the most important tasks for federal executives, career and political, in the coming years will be successfully managing change in their organizations.

As Government Executive has highlighted in many articles in recent years-and, hopefully, as most readers have noticed from personal experience-government organizations responsible for the procurement of goods and services have changed significantly over the past decade. There have, of course, been a number of legislative and regulatory changes, such as the 1994 Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act, the 1996 Clinger-Cohen Act, and rewrites of significant portions of the Federal Acquisition Regulation. But such top-level direction, we know from experience, rarely is accompanied by changes on the ground. In the case of federal procurement, however, such change has taken place.

Indeed, front-line managers in procurement organizations are responsible for driving some of the most significant changes-be they new ways of buying goods at the Defense Logistics Agency, revolutionary innovations in the General Services Administration's Federal Supply Schedules, or the emergence of governmentwide information technology acquisition contracts at the Transportation Department and the National Institutes of Health.

In the early 1990s, most people would have said the federal procurement bureaucracy was an unlikely candidate for major change. Most government contracting professionals seemed content with their role policing contractors and program officials. Procurement was spiraling downward into more and more layers of rules, audits and mistrust. The 1993 National Performance Review report, whose general message was that the federal civil service consisted of "good people trapped in bad systems," was pessimistic about the procurement workforce, pigeonholing acquisition officials as agents of micromanagement and seeking to deal with the obstacles they erected through merciless downsizing.

The good news is that if change can take root in what appeared to be such unfertile soil, there is hope for other large government organizations as well.

Between 1993 and 1997, my job was to lead reinvention of the procurement system from my position as administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy in the Office of Management and Budget. After returning to my old job as a professor of public management at Harvard, I began a research project to learn more about how change was possible, not so much at the top of the system, but in the trenches. I conducted (with the help of a research assistant) in-person interviews with government contracting professionals at 19 buying sites, military and civilian, and followed this up with a large anonymous written survey filled out by the entire contracting workforce in those organizations.

I am now in the midst of analyzing the data that came out of those interviews and surveys with the intention of writing a book on the subject. What follows is an early report on a few of the findings so far, addressing three questions:

  • How did the changes announced from the top in 1993 gain a foothold on the front lines?
  • How did the change spread and become rooted?
  • How did the character of the change itself-what people were doing when they said they were doing "procurement reform"-transform over time?

Gaining a Foothold

By 1993, a significant level of discontent with the procurement status quo had emerged among government contracting professionals. For example, when asked in the written survey which statement "most closely describes your own personal overall attitude toward acquisition reform," about 20 percent of the sample checked the following statement: "This is something I was hoping for, for a long time. I was enthusiastic from the beginning and didn't need any persuading." First-line supervisors were more likely to check that statement than others were. Respondents also were asked to characterize the attitudes toward reform of "the person (non-supervisor) whom you respect most in your organization for his or her skills as a procurement professional." They characterized about 26 percent of those people as "early enthusiast and evangelist for acquisition reform" and another 15 percent as "early enthusiast, but kept his/her opinions mostly to him/herself." By contrast, respondents characterized only 12 percent of respected colleagues as skeptics or critics.

Thus, there was an undercurrent of discontent on the front lines. It is crucial to note, however, that the level of discontent wasn't necessarily higher-and conceivably may have been lower-than in many government organizations where no change has successfully occurred. In fact, a plurality of my respondents also agreed with the statement, "When I first tried out some of the new ideas of acquisition reform, I was doing it mostly because my bosses told me to, not because I was convinced they made sense."

So why did change gain a foothold? The answer can be found by comparing the process of change in large organizations to other kinds of social change studied by social scientists, such as political revolutions. Recent scholarship on the outbreak of social revolutions has emphasized the crucial role of changes at the top of the system in precipitating revolutions from below. For example, the French Revolution was set in motion when King Louis XVI called the Estates-General into session for the first time in hundreds of years because France's many wars had finally driven the government to the brink of bankruptcy. The breakdown at the top provided a signal for revolt to the discontented at the bottom.

In the federal government of the early 1990s, procurement reform was precipitated by pro-reform signals from the top, which gave discontented people at the bottom an opportunity to initiate reforms they wanted even before the message from the top was announced.

What exactly was the change people at the bottom unleashed? Compared to the larger agenda announced by leaders of the procurement reform movement at the top-which included getting greater access to commercial items and improving contractor performance-people on the front lines had fairly limited criticisms. They were concerned that the existing system slowed down contract awards and that, by adding on ever-newer requirements and reviews, made their jobs harder. They wanted streamlining.

Streamlining was only part of the message coming from the top. But many on the front lines heard only the "streamlining" message, because it resonated with ideas they already held. For example, very few people on the front lines saw procurement reform as being about improving access to commercial items.

If the message from the top had not resonated with people on the front lines, procurement reform would never have taken hold. But on the other hand, the reform movement was limited by the focus that people on the front lines gave it.

How It Spread

Once people gave procurement reform a try, many found that it made their jobs easier, empowered them, improved their relations with program managers, and delivered successful results in contracts with which they were associated. In my survey, most respondents believed each of those things about reform.

But one of the most fascinating results of the data analysis so far is that, even when you hold constant the effects of all the substantive reasons to like reform, respondents are more apt to like it if they agree with the following statement: "The more I try the new ways of doing business, the more I like them." There are some people I've surveyed, for example, who have mixed feelings about the statement "acquisition reform has empowered me." Of those people, some are more likely than others nonetheless to say that they like the reforms better the more they try them. The ones who are more likely to say that are also more likely to support acquisition reform.

Why might some people be inclined to like some behavior better the more they try it, while others don't? Because the psychological forces that encourage people to like new activities the more they try them vary across individuals. For those for whom these psychological forces are strongest, getting them to try new ways of behaving is crucial, because these forces will help keep them behaving in the new ways, even independently of any benefits they personally experience (such as becoming empowered) from the new behavior.

One of the psychological forces is what psychologists call the "mere exposure" effect. The notion that people tend to be more favorably disposed toward things to which they are exposed more is well-studied in psychology. In one study, subjects shown a photograph of themselves and a mirror-image photograph preferred the mirror-image photo, while for close friends of the subjects, the preference was reversed.

Another phenomenon that encourages people to like change more the more they try it is what psychologists call the "foot-in-the-door" technique, in which inducing people to take initial small, inconsequential steps puts them on a path that leads them to take larger actions. For example, in a neighborhood near Stanford University, 76 percent of subjects agreed to place a large, crudely lettered, ugly "Drive Carefully" sign in their yard two weeks after having been asked (by a different person) to sign a petition or place a small sign on their car window supporting safe driving. Only 17 percent agreed to display the sign when they
hadn't received the earlier visit.

The foot-in-the-door technique works, psychologists believe, because the first behavior generates an attitude whereby people become, in their own eyes, the kind of person who does "that sort of thing." This generates further behaviors.

Changing Change

How did the specifics of procurement reform change over time? The focus on getting procurements done faster and making the jobs of front-line contracting people easier isn't unpopular with taxpayers, but it hardly constitutes the kind of change that excites them. It's only to the extent that procurement reform comes to embody the larger agenda announced in 1993-of access to lower-priced commercial items and of better-performing contractors-that we have a right to ask taxpayers to notice.

Therefore, some of the survey data that I find most intriguing are those involving what I call "deepening," which occurs when front-line reform supporters expand their conception of reform to include elements that will benefit taxpayers. The data seem to be showing that people who develop a positive overall view of procurement reform gradually come to accept anything leaders present under the rubric of reform, including ideas about getting a better value for the government.

The most obvious evidence of "deepening" is that people who initially saw reform mainly as something to make their jobs easier came to see empowerment as an important aspect of reform. Interestingly, and to my surprise, support for reform is now more closely connected to whether a person believes that reform has empowered them than to whether they believe it's made their job easier.

Front-line opponents of reform report they are no more likely than before to agree with the statement, "I like to come up with ways on my own to do my job better." But front-line supporters who initially saw reform mostly as a way to reduce their burdens are more likely to agree with this statement now than before. Coming up with innovative ways to do one's job moves in the direction of using procurement to create greater value.

Preliminary analysis shows that respondents have developed in their minds a psychological category called "procurement reform" and that as a result, they are more likely to support elements of reform that aren't only related to streamlining-such as the use of past performance and performance-based service contracting.

So what does this research show about organizational change in the federal government during the new millennium?

First, discontent on the front lines, which forms a potential basis for organizational change, is more common than many reformers suspect.

Second, successful initiation of change depends more on leaders' behavior than many managers believe. Often, those on the front lines need only authorization or encouragement from the top to get started. However, there must be at least some overlap between the changes leaders seek and the beliefs of those on the front lines. A corollary of this observation is that people on the front lines have more influence over the actual content of successfully initiated change than many leaders believe. The leader's reform agenda may have 10 points, but if only two resonate with the front lines, only those two are likely to start moving.

Third, it is crucial to get people to try new behaviors. Leaders seeking change should put less priority on studies, plans and recommendations, and more on getting people to test new ways of working. Changes that result from adopting new behaviors increase support for continuing change.

Finally, over time, many people on the front lines who have developed a favorable overall view of change efforts will, as those efforts continue, become more open to a leader's full reform agenda. So the leader who might be depressed that change has involved only two out of 10 agenda items should take heart. In time, people on the front lines may learn to like the other eight, too.

Steven Kelman is Weatherhead Professor of Public Management at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. From 1993 through 1997, Kelman served as administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy in the Office of Management and Budget. He is author of Making Public Policy: A Hopeful View of American Government (Basic Books, 1987).

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