By Steven L. Schooner
Even if Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R.-Calif., is exonerated in a pending investigation into his relationship with a federal contractor, the appearance of impropriety has tainted public opinion. The worst-case scenario is another high-profile procurement scandal - the last thing the government's acquisition system needs.
The media also reported the sale of Air Force procurement czar Darleen Druyun's home to a Boeing Co. attorney - long before the dramatic revelations of her improper dealings with Boeing that earned her prison time and prompted chaos in Boeing's executive suite.
Just as troubling as Druyun's conflicts of interest is the largely unpunished behavior of Air Force and Defense leaders. The recent Defense inspector general's report on the Boeing tanker deal leaves little doubt that senior Air Force acquisition and Defense officials "focused on supporting a decision to lease tanker aircraft from Boeing rather than developing objective acquisition information."
It's unclear how strongly federal leaders value procurement integrity. In assessing the Iraq procurement experience, the mandate to move quickly trumped not only fundamental compliance but the notion that planning before spending is a price worth paying. The Iraq process follows nearly a decade defined by a caution-to-the-wind, implement-now-manage-later approach to acquisition. It evolved through procurement tools such as other transaction authority, commercial purchasing, GSA schedules, governmentwide acquisition contracts, multiple-award contracts and purchase cards. Government agencies never stopped caring about procurement ethics. It just seemed that way. But a thin line separates perception from reality.
Acting Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England's focus on restoring the primacy of integrity to acquisition is encouraging. "Ethical behavior is absolutely essential. Actions by the Department of Defense must always be above reproach," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee in June. But it's not easy. Public policy and ethics experts debate different approaches.
Traditional bureaucracies employ rule-based compliance, which emphasizes laws and regulations and a pervasive "Thou shalt not" commandment. Clear rules tell public officials how to behave. But critics such as David Osborne, co-author of Reinventing Government: How the Entrepreneurial Spirit Is Transforming the Public Sector (Addison-Wesley, 1992), fear these rules stifle creativity. "You can't get people to do their best work if you're treating them like 1950s assembly-line workers," Osborne told the Harvard Business Review in 1994.
In contrast, the principle-based approach envisions an ethical high road. Organizations following this path emphasize the positive, and offer guidance rather than strict prohibitions. Morality - more constant than fluctuating rules, laws and regulations - is determined by examining the motivating principle behind the conduct. The American Society for Public Administration's code of ethics embraces this approach, offering five commandments for public servants: Serve the public interest, respect the Constitution and the law, demonstrate personal integrity, promote ethical organizations and strive for professional excellence. Proponents say these principles elicit the best, rather than the minimum, from individuals. Critics scoff that they are too abstract to meaningfully guide behavior.
The consequentialist approach evaluates outcomes as a moral indicator. Actions are judged in light of their consequences rather than the morality of the actions themselves. After the fact, would your boss be proud of what you've done? This resonates with proponents of the new public management movement, who favor accountability for performance.
It's pointless to suggest that a different ethics regime might have changed recent behavior that has compromised the public's trust. But it's time to start talking about it. The public is entitled to believe government can do better in the future.