To me, as I guess to many Americans, the $640 airplane toilet seat is emblematic of government procurement. We have come to believe that as soon as a bureaucrat buys something, from a bolt to a bomber, the cost skyrockets. Exposing waste has become the stuff of prizewinning journalism, and TV networks feature exposs like ABC's "Your Money, Your Choice" and NBC's "Fleecing of America."
So, imagine my surprise when a bureaucrat in the Office of Management and Budget, Steven Kelman, asked me, on the tennis court, whether I'd like to hear of some recent government purchasing successes. That sounded like an oxymoron, but I ended up spending an hour in his office in the White House annex.
Mr. Kelman, a Harvard product, wrote a book called "Procurement and Public Management," and was invited to join the Clinton administration as OMB administrator of federal procurement policy. He rattled on with infectious enthusiasm, tossing papers to me all the while. Here are some of his sample successes:
Socks for the Army, made to rigid specifications, cost $1.99 a pair, were of rough texture, had no elastic in the tops, and soldiers wouldn't wear them. So the contracting system was dropped in favor of buying socks on the commercial market - $1.49 a pair, and they stay up.
The Treasury wanted to let a $35 million contract for an educational campaign on the new $100 bill - among other reasons, to convince people around the world the old ones were still good. The Treasury considers American currency in circulation as a kind of interest-free loan to the US government. Written bids for such an educational campaign could run 2,000 pages each and the process would take 12 months. Treasury instead called for oral presentations, and awarded the contract in 78 days. Oral presentations are now widely used throughout the government.
In many cases, specifications are being scrapped in favor of buying off-the-shelf. Spare parts for Boeing-made planes are now delivered in a few days instead of the months it took when parts were specially made.
For the first time, said Kelman, government procurement officers call themselves "customers," and they buy that way. So, when you think of $200 billion a year spent by Uncle Sam for goods and services, savings from common- sense buys can add up to billions. And as ABC's John Martin says, "That's your money."
* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.