The high price of public management failures

What do public-contract bidding rules have to do with dead soldiers?

Craig Smith has a depressing story in yesterday’s New York Times about how the Iraqi reconstruction effort has been FUBAR’d.

The fascinating detail is that a major contributor to the problem is the old Progressive anti-corruption principle that contracts must be awarded to the lowest bidder. That allows crooks to low-ball the bidding process and walk away from the job with the money in their pockets.

Not only that, they get to do it again and again, since the debarment process which allows a bidder to be made ineligible for poor past performance applies only to companies, not individuals. So all the crooks have to do is invent a new company each time.

Smith doesn’t mention that the public management failures he describes are in part the product of an earlier public management failure: using the U.S. reconstruction effort as a patronage dump for young conservative ideologues rather than staffing it with people who knew how to run public projects and spoke Arabic.

More broadly, this sort of result is the natural outgrowth of a political-journalistic culture that uses “wonk” as a pejorative. Only a wonk would care about the difference between corporate debarment and individual debarment, or about the question of how to design a contracting system for a corrupt environment. But the failure of the reconstruction effort, by weakening support for the U.S. and the U.S.-allied Iraqi government and strengthening anti-American sentiment, costs American lives and threatens to follow our military triumph with a political and counter-insurgency defeat.

Could we have done better by pushing for the election of local governing councils in Iraq and then allocating the reconstruction funds to them to spend on local projects or distribute to the population? I don’t know. But it seems to me we could hardly have done worse.

I don’t usually envy my colleagues who teach public management, but between Katrina and Iraq they won’t lack for attention-grabbing case studies this year, or anytime soon.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: