3 Myths That Cripple Acquisition: No. 1 Government Can Be Perfect

What it will take to set realistic expectations for federal programs.

This column is the first in a series about three myths that hamper government’s ability to modernize its acquisition process.

Government is held to a standard no industry, company or CEO must meet.

Congress, the media and most Americans seem to unquestioningly accept the myth that when our government plans and budgets for projects – no matter how large, daunting or new – they should achieve them exactly as planned, with no errors and no adjustments, 100 percent of the time.

When companies, universities, philanthropies and citizens regroup and adjust or begin again, we accept their efforts as earnest and the adjustments as a normal part of life. But when government stumbles or determines it needs to adjust or takes a new path, we assume it’s due to waste, fraud, abuse or incompetence.

In fact, what government takes on is just really hard—Moon and Mars shots, fighting terrorists, eradicating poverty, responding to disasters, providing access to health care for all Americans.

Unlike our favorite companies, such as Apple, Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Craigslist and many others, government is given no opportunity to change course, learn and adapt. It is captive in a zero-defect, reality-free zone of its own citizens’ making.

No one can hedge every risk related to the large-scale and complex projects government undertakes on our behalf. Risk is inherent in projects that blaze ground, involve hundreds of powerful stakeholders and cost billions of dollars. They affect entire communities. The health of children. The fate of the Earth.

In all such cases—and in many less challenging ones—unforeseen challenges occur, along with unanticipated obstacles, unexpected results and unpredicted anomalies. When reality bites, we must trust our public servants and give them the liberty to adjust.

Our dilemma as a country stems from a history of having little trust in government and therefore no appetite for risk. 

Successful companies rely on risk to propel them through innovation and into prosperity. They are built on “failures.” Consider Steve Jobs, whose godlike status today belies being fired by his own company at age 30; and several subsequent flops, including the Lisa computer and NeXT Computer company, which succeeded only in being bought by Apple, where Jobs then developed iMacs, iPods, iPads and iPhones.

“In Silicon Valley, widespread innovation and success requires the acceptance of failure, and then a readiness to move on,” Craigslist founder Craig Newmark told The Huffington Post in 2009. The Valley is a hothouse of risk-taking, filled with dreamers and wild-eyed innovators. It’s the antithesis of the locked-down, failure-is-not-an-option mental prison to which we’ve sentenced government and ourselves.

We must free our government if America is to succeed in an increasingly connected and competitive world with problems that are more complex than ever. We must open our minds to the reality that taking on great challenges means accepting risk. It means we must allow government to succeed in the way all great American institutions and industries have succeeded: by experimenting, adapting and trying until they get it right.

As Henry Ford said, “Failure is simply an opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” Allowing this kind of iterative development means taking a deep breath and allowing missteps and false starts on the road to success.

We must accept that our national unwillingness to accept risk and our propensity to set expectations of government accordingly is a dangerous combination. “The biggest risk is not taking any risk,” Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg points out. “In a world that is changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.”

Here’s what it will take to set realistic expectations for government programs:

  1. Simple acceptance that nothing ever goes exactly as planned and there are no zero-defect efforts.
  2. Willingness to discuss the reality that undertaking large, complex projects involves risk, and that failing to recognize this fact increases risk.
  3. Candid and meaningful conversation about how much risk we are willing to take and how much flexibility we are willing to grant government leaders to launch, learn and then adapt.
  4. Agreement that we will support, not pillory, those leaders when they use the flexibility we have granted them.

If government is to tackle our largest challenges, we need to get honest about the inevitability of risk. It’s time to own up to that reality and talk openly, not about whether we are willing to accept risk, but how much.

Next in this series—Myth No. 2: Reforming Acquisition Will Fix It

Kymm McCabe is chief executive officer of ASI Government, which provides support, research, education, news and online tools to federal acquisition professionals at more than 130 agencies. Read about more ASI ideas here.

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