Institutional Dimensions of the Government's "Smart Buyer" Problem: Pillars, Carriers, and Organizational Structure in Federal Acquisition Management

TR Number
Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
Virginia Tech

This study applies a theoretical framework from institutional organization theory (Scott, 2001) to examine the problem of managing government contracting, conceptualized as the "smart buyer problem" by Kettl (1993). Kettl argued that, while embracing the market-based promises of contracting, governments have failed to develop the capacity to address even the most fundamental contracting questions, such as what to buy, who to buy from and what was bought? He suggests that the problem is partly attributable to bureaucratic barriers to information sharing in government agencies that prevent them from becoming learning organizations. This study explores the proposition that institutional characteristics within acquisition organizations may contribute to this problem. Governments do not behave as a single buyer with clearly defined buying objectives. Multiple organizations, each shaped by institutional factors, lay claim to processes relating to Kettl's smart buyer questions. As key organizational participants become aligned with their own regulative, normative, and socio-cognitive institutional "pillars," smart buying behavior may become confounded by institutional factors and constraining organizational structures. For this study, an organizational field consisting of the program office, contracting office, and budget office was selected as the level of analysis. A qualitative multi-approach methodology was developed to analyze data from public sources, including government policy documents, audit reports, and other published information related to five individual cases. Data from autoethnographic accounts, interviews, content analyses, and the case studies helped frame the institutional characteristics of these offices. The study confirmed that the three offices are key participants in acquisition programs, although their roles are not always formally recognized. Strong evidence was found that they each possess unique institutional characteristics. These differences could be creating conditions of divergence and misalignment with the acquisition objectives, raising the possibility of conflicting institutional demands, competing challenges for legitimacy, and institutional change. Policy initiatives to formally recognize the roles and responsibilities of these offices and the use of working-level oversight boards, project teams, and interagency contracting may help mitigate these institutional differences. The study points to the importance of recognizing participants' institutional characteristics when planning and managing an acquisition program.

Public organizations, public procurement, institutional theory