Friday, February 26, 2010

Power to the Purchasers

It is pretty clear these days that major change is not going to be coming out of Washington, D.C. anytime soon. At least maybe/maybe not until after November 2010. So for those of us who would still like to see some things done and real solutions brought to bear, what are our alternatives?

One thing we can do is to identify previously unrecognized pockets where real “power to impact” exists. Places where the opportunity for collective action can multiply outcomes beyond our usual sense of “what can one person do?”

One of America’s greatest characteristics, both past and present, is innovation. It is the ability to see a need and bring a solution to it. Quickly. The insight to look at something old and see a new use, a new opportunity no one else has seen before. The imagination to envision that which has been heretofore unimaginable.

But innovation needs to be nourished and supported. Support includes startup funding, time to put an organization in place, and a market willing to pay for “Version 1.” Especially when version 1, hot off the assembly line, is typically not cost-economical until either version 2 (or even version 3) shows up, or enough sales can drop the unit cost. Fear of risk, fear of failure, an unwillingness to fund a new market, stymies innovation.

We have seen this with many recent attempts at innovation. Alternative fuels and energy. Alternatives to gasoline-powered automobiles, or over-sized cars, or to cars themselves. Alternative manufacturing techniques. These, and other innovation attempts, all wander in search of the money to reach their new marketplace. So who is the potential white knight hiding in the shadows, waiting to be called upon to bring our innovation potential to fulfillment?

Meet America’s purchasing agents. These are the typically nameless, faceless people who guide and oversee the buying of goods and services for corporate and government institutions. They usually are not the final deciders of what will be bought, but they minimally have the power of influence and enforcement. And if so delegated, they can actually define the standards for acceptable goods and services.

Why is this important? Because these people collectively manage the decision process for trillions of dollars of purchases every year. At their worse, they are exemplified by the horror stories of the Pentagon’s $400 toilet seats, and the wasted money that literally goes down the graft commode. Or they themselves are the object of bribes or payoffs. But at their best, they help negotiate the price savings that make institutions operate cost-effectively and accomplish their missions. Properly armed and directed, especially when acting in a group, they have the potential to be a prime enabler in accomplishing economic and social transformation.

The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) is the prime centralized procurer for all federal agencies. They buy all the “stuff” that other federal agencies need, and then bill them back for the cost of the purchase. In their 2008 budget request, they stated that this stuff amounted to $56B in sales volume for their client agencies. That’s a lot of stuff, and a lot of decision-making for “this item instead of that.” More specifically, the GSA stated that in FY 2006 it had bought 60,000 vehicles during that one year.

We’ve wasted 30 years of phony energy policy planning trying to squeeze miniscule gas mileage increases out of recalcitrant auto and gasoline industries. Yet in our profit-driven world, if the GSA came out and said, “next year, we will buy 30,000 new cars that will give us 5 more mpg,” don’t you kind of bet that some innovative automaker – looking at that guaranteed sales number – would be right there on the GSA’s doorstep, ready to serve? Or similarly for a new electric car? Or for any number of other desirable economic and/or social objectives?

Thank about it. What would happen if just the five most populous states (California, Texas [well, probably wishful thinking], New York, Florida and Illinois, representing 36% of the population – or even the 10 most populous states, who have 53% of the entire US population) banded together with their collective buying power and made a similar offer or demand? With a guaranteed market, a new product, support structure, and distribution center network could be put together in record time.

Instead of trying endlessly to pass congressional laws regulating the auto industry (or any other industry), or throwing research and development money at industry and university researchers, why not just offer the capitalist prize that entrepreneurs want at the end of the race – sales? Entrepreneurs, meet purchasing agents. Mr. President and governors, meet your change engines. It is in the buying, not the legislating. Instead of continuing to buy what we say we do not want, start buying what we say we do want.

It is time to quit just talking about it and making excuses. Stop rewarding those who cannot do, and reward through the marketplace those who will do. It is investment by simply redirecting the spending that you are already doing for things we already need and have to buy anyway. And it provides billions of available dollars. It really is just that simple.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Some Mother's Kids

Years ago, I had a good friend who had a favorite expression that I find myself thinking of more frequently of late. Whenever she would hear someone say something really stupid, or observe someone act thoughtlessly or maliciously, she would just shake her head and quietly say, “Some mother’s kids.” In those three words, she was able to raise a legitimate question about what someone had learned in their childhood upbringing and what they had not (or had long forgotten). Simultaneously, she was assessing that person’s words or actions as being so outrageous that they were coming from someone only a mother could love – and perhaps even a severe test of that.

With some of the things we see and hear that leave us scratching our heads incredulously, her three little words seem more and more apt. As an interesting statistical anomaly, the state of South Carolina seems of late to be breeding a whole batch of “some mother’s kids.” I am not sure what causes such lapses in word and deed, but here are some examples:

1. Governor Mark Sanford, who supposedly took a long weekend hike on the Appalachian Trail, only to discover that the trail went way south all the way to his mistress in Argentina. His classic statement of apology? “I need to try to learn to love my wife again.” Not surprisingly, Mrs. Sanford took that ringing endorsement of affection and moved out of the house. The added gall to all of this was that when Governor Sanford was a U.S. Congressman 10+ years ago, he was one of the floor managers seeking to impeach Bill Clinton because of his “infidelity and lack of respect for marriage.” What goes around …

2. Lt. Governor (and now candidate for governor) Andre Bauer gave us a good lesson in dealing with our poorer citizens, thanks to his grandmother. “She was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals – because they breed.” He went on to say that there was a direct correlation between schools with a high percentage of government funded lunch programs and low test scores. His sterling conclusion? Government feeding of hungry children destroys their sense of responsibility and initiative and fosters dependency, so test scores are low. So we need to stop feeding them so that … what? So an 8-yearold will quit school and get a job so s/he can buy food? Did Mr. Bauer skip over the other possible correlation: that kids getting government funded lunches come from poor homes struggling just to get by and lack the ability to give educational support and advantages to their kids as found in middle-to-upper class homes? (He later apologized for comparing “poor children to stray animals.”)

3. The former GOP chairman of the state elections commission, Rusty DePass, made a comment on Facebook about the escape of a gorilla from Columbia’s Riverbanks Zoo. His insightful observation? “I’m sure it’s just one of Michelle’s (Obama) ancestors – probably harmless.” I am sure that that reassuring observation calmed any fears from the zoo’s neighboring residents. His subsequent apology was, “I am as sorry as I can be if I offended anyone. The comment was clearly in jest.” It would seem that Mr. Rusty needs to seriously rethink what constitutes humor, versus what is just thoughtless hurtful.

4. Of course, we all know about the now infamous “You Lie” comment from Congressman Joe Wilson directed to President Obama while speaking to a joint Congressional session. You take an inappropriate remark, speak it at an inappropriate time, broadcast that disrespect publicly to the world, and then subsequently be proven that your statement was blatantly false. Obama did not lie, but all those people who do not know the difference between reasoned debate and ill-tempered shouting found a new champion. A champion who apparently learned no simple manners in his home.

5. Two Republican county chairmen, Edwin Merwin, Jr. and James Ulmer, Jr., seeking to voice their support for Senator Jim DeMint’s fiscal conservatism, wrote in an article that, “There is a saying that the Jews who are wealthy got that way not by watching dollars, but instead by taking care of the pennies and the dollars taking care of themselves.” Their apology came only one day later: “I have always abhorred in the past, and shall continue to do so in the future, anti-Semitism in any form whatsoever.” Truth is, watching the pennies is a good thing for all of us to do. Did not Ben Franklin tell us 200 years ago that a penny saved was a penny earned? Isn’t finding a penny an omen of good fortune to come? Good ethics, lost in a bad context. Try it again, Edwin and James, but this time try using brain before tongue.

6. And do I even need to bring up the current poster boy of deception – South Carolina native John Edwards? How far can the once mighty fall when they sit atop their own illusions of invulnerability? The ripples of hurt from his misstatements and lies now grow larger and wider, enveloping everyone around him. No one is coming out looking admirable, including Elizabeth Edwards, and the sleazy aide with the book deal.

I generally prefer to not get too caught up in public infidelity issues – private lives should be just that: private. And I am not too fond either of the political correctness police who leave you virtually unable to open your mouth about truthful realities without someone getting hysterically bent out of shape. A good sense of humor is still necessary to get through life. Yet thoughtful words and actions still count if one is going to speak in public forums.

We need to know the differences, and where the lines are. Lately it seems like those lines are not visible in the morning fog of South Carolina. It is seemingly a place where inexplicable speech and action seem to be in greater-than-usual quantity. Leaving us all to just shake our heads in bewildered wonderment at Some Mother’s Kids.