Steve Kelman’s Tenure at the Kennedy School

This post first appeared on IBM Business of Government. Read the original article.

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Last week, I had the honor of speaking at the retirement celebration for Steve Kelman longtime Kennedy School Professor, and globally leading government management expert who I’ve been fortunate to know for over three decades.

The event was a remarkable tribute to Steve, who:   

  • moved the public administration field forward, as described by Kennedy School Professor Elizabeth Linos;
  • changed the face of government procurement for the better, as outllined by Kennedy School Professor and event moderator Jeff Liebman;
  • brought government to new levels of performance in Sweden, as noted by prominent Swedish journalist Peter Wolodarski
  • and educated students, scholars and practitioners – to this last point, see my remarks below.

Also speaking about Steve’s impact were major Kennedy School leaders Graham Allison and Richard Zeckhauser, among others.

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I was so honored when Steve contacted me to ask if I’d speak at his retirement on behalf of students across his many years at the Kennedy School, which has had an impact on students of government around the nation and around the world!

Steve’s tenure expends back to 1978, when the Kennedy School consolidated its programs and centers in a new campus at 79 JFK Street.  Perhaps serendipitously, Steve – a newly minted Harvard Dr of Philosophy — joined the K School faculty in the same year.  Generations of Kennedy School students have learned from Steve — since 1978, when I arrived in 1988, and for over four decades.

Steve cares deeply about the Kennedy School, and has always been a great emissary.  One friend recalls that when he was applying to the K School, a mutual colleague told Steve about him — Steve reached out to this person by phone to “sell” him on applying.  It was very helpful for this student to make a personal connection with someone on faculty – no doubt, this story has been matched by many similar encounters.

When we arrived at the K-School, I remember that Steve talked about his work on energy efficiency and government reform in Sweden, and in fluent Swedish!  We all got a lot smarter about this topic, which has continued to be a theme of Steve’s teaching across his career – now matched of course by his fluency with and expertise in Chinese language and governance!

Steve was inquisitive and active in his teaching style.  He would stride Oprah-style right into and even up to the top the seating area in large classrooms – he would infuse excitement about a topic into the physical space of the class, actively engaging students about key points.

Steve focused great energy on the importance of understanding data effectively.  Another friend recalls one class when students weren’t getting the point about how to properly read data concerning water quality in a certain town.  The case documented concerns that the water was causing health issues, including cancer, but the data was very limited.  Steve basically challenged the class about not making conclusions with this insufficient data, when the class was ready to jump to conclusions based on confirmation bias.  Steve noted that success is not consistent with misapplying data — he made his point very effectively.

Steve’s teaching assistants have both excelled in his tutelage, and applied his lessons in their careers thereafter. Steve has been a generous professor for TAs with his time and experience, and his institutional knowledge was a fantastic resource for students learning about the future of digital government – and since this is a large part of the field that I’ve practiced in and with government, I agree!

On this topic, Kennedy School Faculty alum David Eaves, who co-taught with Steve, recounts Steve’s generosity of spirit and time with students – which even extended to blogging about innovative ideas expressed by students in class!

Indeed, Steve’s teaching extends well beyond Cambridge.  I had the opportunity to work alongside Steve when he led the OMB procurement policy office, as Jeff has described.  In that role, Steve taught me and many other leaders and practitioners about the need to revamp calcified law and policy.  He tapped skills as a professor who could bring a class along, to similarly bring the acquisition community behind his vision of procurement reform – his ability to teach this to other practitioners drove the enactment of several major statutory procurement changes that stand to this day.

Years later in the 2010s, when I co-led an acquisition reform initiative with two other close colleagues who Steve knows well, we reached out to him to learn about the art of the possible given recent events. Steve – who then and to this day writes a regular column on government management, the Lectern, for a well-known DC publication — was fully up to speed on key issues, and his insights helped shape understanding of how government managers can best advance innovations in acquisition.

I’ve also had the privilege of helping to share Steve’s lessons with students of public administration across the US and around the world.  Steve (and his wife Shelley!) has written for our Center at IBM on key challenges and opportunities facing government leaders.  His influence across the academy extends to many students at many campuses at the undergraduate and graduate level, as well as to government executives – such as contract overseers who have delivered greater value to $600b in contract spending every year by learning from Steve’s writing on effective contract management after an award is made.

Steve is incredibly open to dialogue and new learning, especially around thought-provoking views that to this day he continues to espouse on his substack (the fact that Steve even has a substack shows his currency with lingua franca today!). One recent story about his willingness to engage – when Steve wrote a critical column about a Biden Administration initiative, I contacted him with some information that was not yet public but addressed Steve’s critiques.  Steve not only wanted to understand why this was the case, he had me arrange a discussion with the senior OMB official who had that inside knowledge, and then Steve wrote a second column that recognized the progress he had previously criticized.

For students of the future – including my daughter, who will start as an MPP in the fall — whether they want to know about analytics, acquisition, Swedish energy efficiency, or the finer points of mandarin – it’s great that Steve will continue to share his insights through the Kennedy School as an emeritus professor.

Steve, on behalf of decades of your students here and around the world, here’s to you!

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