Tight budget revives contracting professional debate

Do contracting officials serve the public or their agency programs? Steve Kelman considers the arguments.

As part of the effort to cut government budgets, the demand for cost savings from contracting has raised again one of the oldest issues about the role of contracting professionals in government: To what extent is the role of contracting professionals to serve the mission customers on whose behalf they buy? To what extent is their role to serve taxpayers in general?

Demands that contracting contribute to cost savings in a tight budget environment raise the visibility of the "serve taxpayers in general" approach to the role of contracting.
There was an older culture in contracting -- which probably reached its height in the 1980s -- that saw the role of contracting as being to protect taxpayer interests, often conceived of as being in opposition to the desires of program customers. In the most dramatic version of this view, program customers paid no attention to what things cost, were too close to contractors -- and were quick to try to skirt necessary procurement regulations as well. Out of the more extreme versions of this ideology grew a self-conception of contracting officials as a police designed mostly to control program customers, not to serve them.  (I should note that advocates of this view seldom or ever even used the word "customer" to describe program people -- the most common word used was "they.") Contracting people were to behave this way in order to meet their wider responsibility, which was to taxpayers. Pursuant to this approach, contracting people were kept organizationally as independent of program people as possible.
The total quality management movement of the early 1990s, followed by the procurement reform efforts of the "reinventing government" era, preached an alternative view: The job of contracting people was to help customers meet the organization's mission. Contracting people, in this view, should be business advisors to program people, helping them buy best-value products or services in support of the program. Pursuant to this approach, contracting people were often moved into matrix or even line organizational arrangements with program people. In more recent years, the pendulum has swung somewhat back away from "serve customers" to "serve taxpayers."
My own view is that contracting people ideally should seek to reduce this opposition as much as possible. Taxpayers have an interest in programs working well, which requires contracting efforts that serve the program. (Of course, taxpayers may want to get rid of some programs or cut dramatically back on their aspirations, but that decision is independent of the efforts of contracting folks.) Actually, especially in tight budget times such as these, program people have an interest in saving money on what the program buys, indeed because  dollars are tight. The tighter the budget times, the closer the "serve customers" and "serve taxpayers" perspectives match, because the program people become more interested in cost savings. So right now, program and contracting people should be working together aggressively to look for cost savings. Hopefully, contracting people can bring some of their skills to the table in the service of this common goal.
More broadly, in my view contracting people should take a customer perspective, but work to explain to program folks why some of the approaches that typically are on the agenda of contracting folks -- seeking competition, worrying about good requirements before a solicitation goes out, looking for cost-saving opportunities -- are in fact ways to make the program work better, not simply control requirements contracting is imposing on program people. Contracting people should take as a goal never to say to program folks, "You need to do this because the regs say you have to."