Confronting the culture of fear in government

Steve Kelman gives kudos to DHS' Soraya Correa for facing the FLASH cancellation head-on.

Soraya Correa, DHS Chief Procurement Officer

To counter the fear of failure that too often hobbles government, agencies need more leaders like DHS Chief Procurement Officer Soraya Correa, who are willing to encourage experiments and own the results.

It is a common view among observers of the operations of the federal government that agencies are often hobbled by a culture of fear. Civil servants are terrified that if they ever make a mistake, the boom will be lowered on them (the words “get fired” are often used), while success doesn’t garner corresponding rewards. In such an environment, even prudent risk-taking is shunned, since taking a risk will sometimes produce failure. The government, and citizens, suffer from the inability to reap the benefits of innovation.

I have sometimes thought that this widespread view to some extent involves government folks being afraid of their own shadows. Government is not exactly known for draconian accountability – people are hardly fired all the time, to put it mildly – and it is legitimate to ask whether there are any significant penalties for failure in government organizations. Having thought about it, though, I have drawn the conclusion that what drives fear is not tangible punishments but rather the dread of being publicly humiliated for being dumb, lazy or venal. ran a story recently on the Department of Homeland Security’s cancellation of the procurement for a big $1.5 billion IDIQ contract to support agile contracting called FLASH (maybe you can guess what it stands for -- Flexible Agile Support for the Homeland). The contract had been protested after award, and, after looking over the objections of the protesters, DHS decided not to fight the protest – or to do what agencies often do, buy off protesters by awarding them places on the vehicle – but rather to cancel the procurement outright.

The FCW article quoted DHS’s chief procurement officer, the smart and feisty Soraya Correa, who had been an initiator of the effort, on the cancellation. She started by saying that the procurement strategy was an experiment developed by DHS’s Procurement Innovation Lab, centered not around a traditional written proposal but instead around companies actually performing a real agile task that was video-recorded and examined as a central part of proposal evaluation.

“As happens with experiments, some things go well and some things don't,” she said. There were complaints about the quality of the video presentations (there were a hundred companies bidding for the work), about some of the spaces where people were assigned to work, and about errors in the evaluations of that work.

Then came her clincher. “I own it,” she continued, referring to the procurement. “I lived it because it's my project and my failure."

Wow, I said to myself. Pretty classy.

So I called Correa to hear her story on this. (She was out of town all last week, hence the delay between the FCW article and this blog.) She told me that when she became chief procurement officer in 2015, she stated that, as leader of her organization, “my goal was to inspire people to take chances to make the procurement process faster, more efficient, and more effective – to help people execute on mission. I invited people to bring creative ideas, and then I said to everyone, ‘If you succeed, you own success, we will spread your success so other people can use it. But I own failure.”"

In saying that, Correa wanted to make it easier for folks in her organization to take risks. “That’s what’s going to inspire people to try new things,” she told me. Thus, while acknowledging her failure with FLASH, Correa has given an award to the people working on the procurement for the innovations they tried. Even though the procurement was withdrawn, “we did some smart things,” she stressed.

Correa’s “I own it” comment came in response to an audience question when she spoke on a panel with other DHS CXOs, chaired by DHS Acting Undersecretary for Management Chip Fulgum. Why did she say this, I asked? “I was a commitment I had made," Correa said. "I’m supposed to own it. This was my instinctive behavior as a leader.” Then Fulgum added, “I own it too,” a comment for which Correa expressed appreciation.

Correa drew an important distinction between failure due to trying something risky that would have been great if it had succeeded, and failure because of poor performance – being lazy or not knowing the rules. “I’m not encouraging failure, but as long as people are making mistakes because they are trying to do things better, that’s ok,” she said. “It wasn’t hard to say what I said [about owning the failure], but it was painful, because I want folks to be successful.”

Correa agreed with my observation that fear of being publicly humiliated (what she calls “public flogging”) is the biggest driver of the fear culture in government. She said she has been “pleasantly surprised” there have been no “bad articles” about DHS’s acknowledgement of failure; the coverage, she said, has all been fairly evenhanded and descriptive. It may well be that by taking the initiative to acknowledge failure, one disarms potential critics, who might have discovered the problems even absent such an acknowledgement -- making an acknowledgement a wise strategy as well as the right thing to do.

One thing we should ask of organizations that acknowledge failure is that they try to learn from their mistakes. That’s what Correa will be trying to do with the postmortem report she has requested on the FLASH procurement. “I need to find out If I did enough to prevent failure,” she said.

As I was thinking about Correa’s story, I was reminded of a passage I read many years ago about power. People confronted with power often bend to its commands, the author, whose name I can't recall, wrote. Yet power could change the course of mighty rivers but then fall to a puff of wind. To defeat power, the passage stressed, all that was required was to be unswayed by its blandishments.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt's statement that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself is a more-famous take on that same sentiment. And Correa seems to have taken both quotes to heart. Her “I own it” declaration lights a path out of the culture of fear. May she have many acolytes among government managers.