Inspiring Reform

By Kimberly Palmer

October 1, 2005

Leaders eyeing big changes should reach out to their supporters.

Steven Kelman, head of the Office of Management and Budget's procurement policy shop during the Clinton administration, has a message for federal executives: Despite stereotypes about civil servants' preference for the status quo, change is possible.

In his new book, Unleashing Change: A Study of Organizational Renewal in Government (Brookings Institution Press, 2005), Kelman cites his own experience to showcase his theory, and explains that it can be applied to any effort in government. He argues that a core group of people often are eager for change and encouraging that group to reach out to their more agnostic peers can create a desirable domino effect.

From a survey of 1,600 federal employees involved in procurement and 270 interviews, Kelman identifies what he calls the "change vanguard"-the group that wants reform. Members are more likely to have higher risk tolerance and idealism than their peers. "The job of a leader is to unleash the supporters you already have and make their position stronger," Kelman says. He calls this process "activating the discontented."

His book is like a government-focused version of Malcolm Gladwell's best seller, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Back Bay Books, 2002), which explains how a marginal idea can gain momentum. Kelman's book has one advantage-he has lived these theories. In fact, some of the most interesting pages read more like a memoir than a treatise on change. Now a professor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, Kelman recalls his early days at the Office of Federal Procurement Policy and his doubts that he could have any impact on procurement policy.

By the end of his four-year term in 1997, he had moved agencies to a more business-oriented way of buying goods and services. He promoted the use of government credit cards, one of the first big steps to leveraging buying power. He also supported buying more commercial items instead of having companies create products specifically for the government and encouraged agencies to develop performance-based contracts. As Allan Burman, former OFPP chief under President George H. W. Bush points out, many of those changes first were advocated prior to Kelman's reign. Burman credits Kelman's focus on backing change through front-line contracting officials with turning ideas into reality.

Not everyone, of course, wholeheartedly supported those reforms. Angela Styles, government contracts attorney at the Washington law firm Miller and Chevalier and one of Kelman's successors as OFPP chief in the younger Bush's administration, says procurement reforms were a good idea, but their implementation lacked proper oversight. "While providing easy access to the commercial marketplace, [they] didn't always have some of the protections that were necessary for taxpayers," she says. The emphasis on change fostered an environment where rules didn't seem to matter, Styles says.

Kelman says he didn't talk a lot about ethics during his OFPP tenure because he had to focus on reform: "To some extent, we took the ethical system for granted." He says current congressional inquiries into procurement scandals are counterproductive because they focus on constraints instead of possibilities in contracting. The American Federation of Government Employees disagrees, saying it advocates more competition and more oversight.

Kelman has been criticized for lobbying work he does for the government contractors Accenture and Ariba Inc. He says his work for those companies is a small part of his life and doesn't affect his research, and he provides full disclosure. "Whenever I do work for any company of any sort, I say to them up front-and they're extremely aware of this-that I will never do anything that I don't think is in the government's interest. No amount of money is worth it," he says.

By Kimberly Palmer

October 1, 2005