Bought and Sold

March 2016
By Mark Funkhouser  |  Former Publisher
Former publisher of Governing and former mayor of Kansas City

The three basic functions of government administration are human resources, procurement and financial management. Governments take in money from taxes and fees and use that money to hire people who buy stuff to do the work. There are, of course, legendary opportunities for corruption and fraud in each of these areas, but arguably it is the realm of contracting and procurement that is the most notorious.

Willie Stark, the populist demagogue of Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 novel All The King’s Men, came to power by exposing corrupt purchasing: a rigged contract for school construction that resulted in a fire escape collapsing and killing children. In the real world of government, Harry S. Truman first gained national attention by leading a Senate investigation into corrupt military contracting that produced outrage across the country.

But outrage is not a sound basis for policy. When I read The Pursuit of Absolute Integrity: How Corruption Control Makes Government Ineffective, which was published in 1996, I was in the middle of my career as a government auditor. The book, by Frank Anechiarico and James B. Jacobs, resonated with what I was seeing in my work. A spiderweb of rules, often imposed in a well-meaning response to some scandal, had made it very difficult for managers to run their programs efficiently and effectively. Two years ago, Philip K. Howard took up this theme in The Rule of Nobody: Saving America from Dead Laws and Broken Government. In both books, the conclusion is roughly the same: By limiting the discretion of decision-makers, we have made government slow and cumbersome, and usually without providing any real protection against fraud or abuse.

Some state governments are working hard to correct this situation, crafting new policies and practices to remedy deficient procurement operations. We hope to help them spread their ideas. Our team, led by Dugan Petty, who spent many years in state procurement, and by Governing Institute Director Julia Burrows, spent a year developing criteria to evaluate state procurement functions and surveying states to see how well they met those criteria. The responses were evaluated by Petty along with our public management experts Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene. The state rankings are reported in Liz Farmer’s cover story.

A core mission of Governing is to advance better government through the diffusion of innovation. We hope this latest effort can help bring about the kinds of changes that even Willie Stark might approve of.