Unleashing Change: A Study of Organizational Renewal in Government

By Steven Kelman

Publisher: Brookings Institution Press

$29.95 softcover

Fifteen years ago, Steve Kelman, a Harvard professor of public management, wrote Procurement and Public Management: The Fear of Discretion and the Quality of Government Performance. In it, he ridiculed government's failure to use past performance in contract awards and the inordinately long time it took to do any large procurement.

Kelman argued that the federal procurement process needed a makeover.

Three years later, with a new president and Al Gore's effort to reinvent government, Kelman found himself in charge when President Clinton tapped him to head the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. Once in office, he overhauled a system he was convinced was broken, eventually ushering in the most pronounced changes in federal procurement policy in decades.

Agencies were encouraged to award contracts based on best value, not just low bid. Past performance became an important component of contract awards. Procurement was radically streamlined. And most surprisingly, the bulk of the reforms won the hearts and minds of the front lines.

Now, 15 years after the release of his book that helped usher in these changes, Kelman is back with a new book. In Unleashing Change: A Study of Organizational Renewal in Government, Kelman describes how procurement reformers achieved this transformation, and more importantly, the lessons it conveys about realizing change in large bureaucracies.

It is axiomatic among organizational change gurus that to achieve far-reaching change in an organization such as the federal government, you must first change attitudes -- in senior career people and down to the front lines. This change typically is accomplished through a combination of "shock and awe," i.e., by overwhelming those resisting change with a mix of rewards and penalties. Implicit in this strategy is the assumption that most people will resist change.

In Unleashing Change, Kelman takes issue with the conventional wisdom, arguing that the idea that people generally resist change is oversimplified and misleading. Kelman's central argument is that in most change initiatives, there's likely a constituency for change and one for the status quo. Initiating change triggers a political struggle between those who favor the status quo and those unhappy with the present system. Leadership's critical role is to identify and activate the latter group, which Kelman calls the discontented. By tapping into this constituency, change needn't always be coerced or cajoled. Instead, it can be unleashed.

This became the key tenet of Kelman's strategy to reform federal procurement. He realized early that many front-line procurement professionals were frustrated with the layers of rules, sign-offs and lack of discretion with which they contended on a daily basis. Meanwhile program offices complained for years about the "slow-as-molasses" federal procurement system that impaired their ability to realize goals. Both groups, Kelman soon understood, could become critical allies in the procurement reform effort.

Kelman set out the broad outlines of the reform agenda -- better value, higher quality, less bureaucracy, more autonomy -- and gave front-line supporters the aid and ammunition they needed to initiate and consolidate change. Over time, each success helped to build more momentum for reform, and strengthened the political hand of reformers. Ten years later, most Kelman-era reforms are still in place, having survived -- for now -- the counterattacks from factions in Congress and the Washington establishment.

Unleashing Change is not a light read. Most books from former presidential appointees are heavy with anecdotes and light on data to substantiate their conclusions. Kelman's book is the opposite -- the 62 pages of endnotes hint that this is not your standard kiss-and-tell Beltway fare. Kelman weaves into his analysis theory from political science, sociology, business management and organizational innovation. The book is also chock-full of quantitative analysis. For these reasons, some busy practitioners might find it a bit challenging to get through Unleashing Change. Those with perseverance, however, will find it provides important insights for how they can achieve lasting change in large bureaucracies.

William D. Eggers  |  Contributing Writer