The Endless Urge to Reform Washington

‘Landmark commissions’ aimed at making government work better come and go, typically expiring with little follow-up. We need to reform the way we reform.

By Robert Knisely

I joined Vice President Al Gore’s National Performance Review in March 1993, on Day One. Our mission was to make the federal government “work better and cost less.” This January, nearly 20 years later, a president will face an electorate just as disappointed with Washington. Do we need another “landmark commission” to address the structure and management of the federal government? If so, what should be its goals and philosophy? What should it try to do?

“Administrative Renewal,” by Ronald C. Moe, lists 16 landmark commissions in the 20th century, from the Keep Commission (1905 -1909) to Gore’s NPR (which became the National Partnership for Reinventing Government, 1997-2000). Moe’s list includes the Brownlow Committee, two Hoover Commissions and the Grace Commission. This is well-trod ground.

Moe preferred the approach of “constitutionalists” trying to make government more accountable to the president by reinforcing hierarchy. On the other side are the “entrepreneurs” aiming at maximizing performance and satisfying “customers.” Henry Mintzberg at McGill wrote in the Harvard Business Review in 1996 (“Managing Government, Governing Management”) that a nation consists not only of customers but also of clients, citizens, and subjects.

Leaving aside the question of whether you are a highway patrolman’s “customer” when he stops you for speeding, Moe and Mintzberg are arguing apples and oranges. The paradigm shift should be from apples to orchards, looking system-wide at how government addresses complex, critical and urgent national problems. They require solutions that are rooted neither in 18th-century political philosophy nor in current management fads. Call me a “systemist” if you will.

The questions that a system-wide review of national governance would want to answer might include:

• How government learns about problems and then chooses a manageable number of them for action.

• What types of intervention are considered for each problem, and how and why a particular tool is chosen. In his book “The Tools of Government,” Lester Salamon of Johns Hopkins gives us more than enough to consider in a list that encompasses everything from direct government action to regulation to service contracting to tax policy to grants, loans and vouchers.

• Whether a new entity or an existing one will manage the new intervention.

• How progress — or lack of it — will be measured, in terms of outputs per unit of inputs as well as outcomes, and on the effects on the larger society.

• What success will look like, and what resources will be needed to get there.

• How and how often success, partial success or even failure will be communicated back to the president, Congress and the nation.

This apparently simple feedback loop — set goal, take action, measure results against goal — masks the extraordinary developments in the system sciences since World War II, the development of information science and technology just since the NPR, and other societal and global transformations. A short list follows:

• Systems thinkers: Peter Senge, Stafford Beer, Herbert Simon, James G. Miller, Ross Ashby, Donella Meadows and Jay Forrester, just for starters.

• Augmented planning: scenario planning, system dynamics and, most recently, extensive interactive video gaming.

• Developments in IT: open government, crowdsourcing and, more recently, big data. (If Congress were to publish legislative impact statements prior to enactment, for example, crowdsourcing would be one way to uncover unintended consequences.)

• The science of design. Look for the movie “Design & Thinking” and watch this Chautauqua video of George Kembel at Stanford University’s design school.

• Issues raised by such concerns as resilience and chaos, which must be factored into the design of government.

When I brought up “the design of government” with Gore, he said, “We don’t have time for that.” I did manage to get a team assigned to write an NPR report on program design, but that’s as far as it went. And that’s as far as things often go. The landmark commissions go out of business with little follow up, and even recommendations that are implemented can fail: The “management side” of the Office of Management and Budget went from 224 employees as established in 1970 to 111 in 1980 to 47 by the end of the Reagan administration to 12 in early 2002.

To keep a continuing focus on improving the federal government’s effectiveness at matching tools to problems and measuring progress, we need an institution with staying power. The National Academy of Sciences, established by President Lincoln, might work. Beyond its impartiality, NAS has demonstrated organizational capacity: In 2012, 10,000 people attended the 91st annual meeting of its Transportation Research Board.

Another possibility, perhaps in conjunction with NAS, would be a consortium of public-policy schools focused on these issues. And in today’s plugged-in world, a third possibility might be a hosted portal for crowdsourcing.

Perhaps you have a better idea. But without some kind of new approach, the next landmark commission is likely to have the same long-term impact as all of those that have gone before.

Copyright 2012, Robert Knisely | All rights reserved

[This column was published by GovManagement Daily on October 12th, 2012, and reprinted in a December publication of the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA), hard copy only.]

Texas Conference of Urban Counties — December 2011

[This is a work in progress, and will be edited until after the conference at Long Pines.]

You are at my blog, My resume is under “About” at the upper right hand corner of this page.

Please don’t bother to register or comment — I’m being spammed so often that I just delete all messages concerning the blog. But feel free to email me at with comments or questions.

I. The “live” version of my Governing Magazine column is HERE and here:  Some of the links are worth exploring.

And here’s a “live” list of my Governing columns:

What Government Can (and Can’t) Learn from Steve Jobs

How Many Governments Do We Need?

The Secret to StateStat’s Success

GAO and the Department of Redundancy

Breaking the Tyranny of Rules

In Search of “What Works”

Homelessness: Think Strategically, Act Humbly

Not Being There

Data to the People – A Tour of DC

II. One of the best critiques of the National Performance Review was written in 1996 by Professor Henry Mintzberg of McGill University in Canada, and published in the Harvard Business Review. I recommend it highly. In it, Professor Mintzberg took us to task for focusing on “the customer” and his/her relationship to government. We were always talking about making government work better for “the customer.” He said that there are FOUR roles that each citizen has with respect to government, and that government must respond differently to each. He listed (a) Customer, (b) Client, (c) Citizen, and (d) Subject.

The easiest example is Subject: when the highway patrolman stops you for speeding, you’re not his Customer – you’re a Subject, and you better act that way! Customers have a short term relationship with government (think visitors to a national park), while Clients have a longer term relationship (think welfare recipient). Another way to distinguish them is that government should give Customers what that WANT, while government is charged with giving Clients what they NEED.

And, of course, as Citizens we are the bosses of government – the stakeholders. That’s not exactly like Customers either!

And since the relationships are different, government needs to focus on WHICH aspect of an individual is primary in a given interaction, and behave accordingly. The article is available from the Harvard Business Review, but you’ll have to pay for it.

III. When I worked in the Pentagon, I learned about the “tooth-to-tail” ratio. If it takes ten soldiers in supply, cooking, weapons repair, etc., to keep one soldier on the front line, then the “tooth-to-tail” ratio is one to ten. What we like in my Marine Corps is that the Navy supplies us with “bullets, beans, and bandaids,” so the Marines’ tooth-to-tail ratio is kept very low, and we can stay focused on the battle.

One of the advantages of consolidation, as well as of interagency agreements, etc., is the opportunity to improve your organization’s tooth-to-tail ratio. It’s NOT an opportunity to reduce the number of police or sheriff’s deputies, or EMS workers, or tax collectors for that matter. But you may be able to make do with fewer procurement specialists, human resource staff, information technology staff, etc. It should be a goal of governmental rethinking and redesign to IMPROVE the tooth-to-tail ratio at all levels of government.

IV. There’s a new book coming out in January, “Collaborate or Perish,” by William Bratton and Zach Tumin. During his long career Bratton was chief of police in Boston, New York, and Los Angeles. He was a remarkably effective public servant, and one of his conclusions is that we need more collaboration (Duh!). One of the strongest arguments for consolidation and cooperation at all levels of government is the improvement in collaboration that should, and will, occur. I have not read the book, and (full disclosure) I know both Bill and Zach. I’d still recommend taking a look at it .

As you may know, on the east and west coasts we talk about organizational stovepipes. Here in the Midwest you talk about silos. SAME THING! We can’t even collaborate on using the same term for the same problem!

V. Two of the tools now in heavy use in private sector consulting are Business Process Modeling and the Capability Maturity Model. They are documented on the Internet, and are both worth a long look. You cannot hope to do Ken Miller’s Extreme Government Makeover without Business Process Modeling. And if you want a good score card for your organization, take a good long look at the Capability Maturity Model (NOT just as used in software development).

VI. As you can tell from my resume, I was totally unable to hold a job. Fortunately, the Federal government paid me every other Tuesday whether I needed it or not. It was a very interesting career – I learned early on the value of an active “Rolodex” – an almost obsolete term, I know. I learned that eating lunch with the people in one’s own office is a good idea most of the time, but finding new friends in the same line of work for the occasional lunch is educational, inspiring – and often provides leads to another lilypad when jumping is called for.

VI. Illinois and Pennsylvania together have almost 11,000 units of local government, while Alaska and Hawaii have fewer than 200! How much of that is evidence of simple accretion? Will Hawaii have 5,000 units in 200 years, assuming it’s above sea level? What accounts for these disparities?

The figures on the units of government are taken from the 2007 Census of Governments. There’s a table HERE and here:

Two more related Bureau of the Census files are here:

I found two interesting articles on the proliferation of units of government:

Illinois 2006 article:

Michigan 2010 article:

VII. ALL of the documentation of the National Performance Review is stored in Texas! The main link is HERE and here:

I particularly recommend the report titled “Rethinking Program Design.” While I didn’t write it, I dragooned several really bright people into forming a team and set them free. The parallels between the report and my blog are obvious!

VIII. The Thomas Jefferson quote appears on Panel Four of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington. Jefferson wrote it in a letter to one Samuel Kercheval, on July 12th 1816. I’m hoping our institutions advance more swiftly than I’ve recently observed!

IX. Here are the live links to the sites listed under “Innovation ‘Search and Rescue’ in the Powerpoint presentation:

Harvard’s Government Innovators Network , HERE and here:

Governing Magazine’s Better, Faster, Cheaper blog, HERE and here:

Governing Magazine’s Management Insights blog, HERE and here:

The GovManagementDaily newsletter. Sign up at

X. And here are live links to Everett Rogers and the Diffusion of Innovations. Some of you will be familiar with the terms “radical innovator” and “early adopter.” Those are from Rogers’ work. (If ALL of you are familiar with his work, I apologize. I’ve found it both useful and fascinating.)

Everett Rogers bio

The diffusion of innovations (theory)

The Diffusion of Innovation – Fifth Edition (book)

XI. The six examples of innovation I gave were all from Harvard’s Government Innovator’s Network. The preliminary application asks for two sentence descriptions of the innovations. I had to cannibalize them for the slides, so here they are unaltered:


The FUNDERS GROUP coordinates the investments of multiple governmental entities and philanthropies. It establishes cross-jurisdictional goals and work plans for our homelessness system and creates a single grant application, award and reporting process through which agencies are ensured the capital, operating and service funding needed for each project.


The Cities of Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach, and Oceano Community Services District, CA, have taken a systematic approach to improve operating efficiencies and reduce budget expenditures to deliver Fire and Emergency services. This process provided for a smooth political transition with regard to full consolidation of Fire and Emergency services.


In October 1998 and July 2002, the  San Antonio area experienced record amounts of rain; resulting floods caused many fatalities and approximately $1 billion in damage. Following these two events, government leaders united in an effort to provide improved regional flood control and management of storm water and water quality.


The Congress of Neighboring Communities (CONNECT) is a forum for local government cooperation among the City of Pittsburgh and its 35 neighboring municipalities. In a region often cited as the most fragmented in the country, this alliance is exemplifying meaningful cooperation between city and suburbs that is virtually nonexistent elsewhere.


The Florida Benchmarking Consortium (FBC) is an intra-state collaboration of Florida local governments seeking to improve the delivery of local government services through the use of performance measurement data and proven benchmarking tools and techniques. The Florida Benchmarking Consortium takes performance measurement to the next level.


The towns of  Newbury, New London, and Sunapee joined forces to create a novel assessing solution that would benefit all three towns. They combined financial resources and the mutual interests of the towns that surround Lake Sunapee to create a regional assessing district employed by all three communities.

XII. You might find the work of Stafford Beer interesting, especially his Viable System Model. It has colored my thinking for years.

XIII. You might find the work of Ross Ashby interesting, especially Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety. I think that Ashby’s Law helps explain a lot of what’s wrong with government today. One example: at no time during Prohibition did the Federal government employ more than 1500 enforcement officers. How was THAT supposed to work? I address the same issue in my blog piece about “Phase Four Souvlaki.”

XIV. I have NO CLUE about how the world of information technology will change the Federal government in ten years, much less county government. I started with computers in the Pentagon, where Lieutenant Commanders were pushing grocery carts full of “computer output” from place to place. I now store most important information in “the cloud.” Along the way, I headed the US Delegation to the First World Conference on “Informatics” in Government, held in Florence, Italy, in October, 1972. Talk about wonderful trips! And I still have no clue about the world of 2020. But I love Skyping with my grandkids in Boston and Santa Cruz.

XV. I invented the Wart/Hopper Index in the 1990’s as a means of encouraging risk taking among the new employees of the Bureau of Transportation Statistics at DOT (our motto: “BTS: Without Transportation, we’re just BS!”). Our initial six year funding was $90m, and our second tranche was $186m. That’s considered a “win” in Washington. One of my sharpest employees was Bob Zarnetske, who showed up early this year as a political appointee, the Director the New England Regional Office of the General Services Administration. I was in Boston visiting my new granddaughter, Lyla Rose Geisel, and went to his swearing-in ceremony. He used the Wart/Hopper Index as part of his speech to the Regional Office staff. His speech is HERE and here:

XVI. And last, as a warning for institutions reluctant to change, and not observant of the world in which they operate, here’s one more story. Last summer my wife gave me an iPad for my birthday. I wanted a simple (read: cheap) sleeve to keep it protected, and remembered the Tyvek mailing envelopes at the Post Office. SO, one day I went into a local post office, picked one up, and got in line. There’s always a line. While I was waiting, I looked over the envelope. In small type I read:


I sighed, left the line, put the envelope back, and walked out. I went next door, where there was a FedEx office, hoping they had the same type of mailing envelope. I walked in, found just what I was looking for, picked it up, and caught the eye of the clerk. There was no line. I asked, “How much?” and he said “Just take it.” If you’ve been following the news, you’ll know which organization is in trouble. And not just from labor costs.

XVII. Please bear in mind the Robert Kennedy quote as you pursue improving governments. We need to focus on things that never were, and ask “why not?” He never claimed the quote as original, by the way. It’s actually from George Bernard Shaw’s play, Back to Methuselah. Even the Kennedys were willing to be “early adopters” on occasion!

I had a WONDERFUL three days, and I thank you so much for inviting me! I knew I didn’t know anything about county government, but I’d NO IDEA how much there is to know. Best of luck going forward.

Bob Knisely

“A Rich Field of Data”

Today’s New York Times (may it live long and prosper) has an editorial, Back From the Brink, that describes a collaboration by two former antagonists that has resulted in their agreement on a course of action to preserve the oceans’ fishing stocks.

What struck me was this line: “…rather than hunker down in opposing camps, the two men met on a rich field of data.”

“A rich field of data.” What a wonderful turn of phrase.

If only the antagonists over health care reform, the financial crisis, climate change, and other societal problems could meet “on a rich field of data.”

Of course, a rich field of theory might help as well.

As President Clinton said in his acceptance speech at the 1992 Democratic National Convention:

“As a teenager, I heard John Kennedy’s summons to citizenship. And then, as a student at Georgetown, I heard that call clarified by a professor named Carroll Quigley, who said to us that America was the greatest Nation in history because our people had always believed in two things–that tomorrow can be better than today and that every one of us has a personal moral responsibility to make it so.”

I am one of a dwindling number of Americans who met Jack Kennedy and shook his hand – although it’s hard to believe it was over fifty years ago. I’m still working on ‘what I can do for my country.’ This blog is just about it.

And “a rich field of data” – and theory – just about describes its mission.

Unintended Consequences (and Jay Forrester)

Today’s Washington Post reports that General Motors is likely to be building more cars overseas after it’s restructured (see

The lead paragraph: “The U.S. government is pouring billions into General Motors in hopes of reviving the domestic economy, but when the automaker completes its restructuring plan, many of the company’s new jobs will be filled by workers overseas.”

And later, “Essentially in control of the company, the president’s autos task force faces an awkward choice: It can either require General Motors to keep more jobs at home, potentially raising labor costs at a company already beset with financial woes, or it can risk political fury by allowing the automaker to expand operations at lower-cost manufacturing locations.”

This will likely happen when Fiat takes over much of Chrysler, leaving the United Auto Workers with a large stake in a company who’s “salvation” lies in eliminating the jobs of their members.  How fun.

This is viewed by the media as “ironic,” but in truth it’s an excellent example of what Jay Forrester of MIT explains in a memorable chapter of Urban Dynamics (1969) – unintended consequences resulting from intervening in the workings of complex systems. If you “push” on a complex system, it is quite likely to react in EXACTLY the opposite direction than you intended.

A city is a complex system. An industry is a complex system. Economies are complex systems. Countries are complex systems.

The listing of Urban Dynamics is a good place to explore – it lists 100 books that refer to it.

Another is Forrester’s wikipedia page.

It starts: Forrester was born in 1918 on a cattle ranch near Anselmo, Nebraska, in the middle of the United States. His early interest in electricity was spurred, perhaps, by the fact that the ranch had none. While in high school, he built a wind-driven, 12-volt electrical system using old car parts — it gave the ranch its first electric power.[1] After finishing high school, he had received a scholarship to go to the Agricultural College. Three weeks before enrolling, he realized a future of herding cattle in Nebraska winter blizzards had never appealed to him. So instead in 1936 he enrolled in the Engineering College at the University of Nebraska to study Electrical engineering. As it turns out this study was about the only academic field with a solid, central core of theoretical dynamics.[2].

After finishing the University in 1939 he went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to become a research assistant and eventually spend his entire career. In his first year at MIT he was commandeered by Gordon S. Brown who was the pioneer in “feedback control systems” at MIT. During World War II his work with Gordon Brown was in developing servomechanisms for the control of radar antennas and gun mounts. This work was research toward an extremely practical end that ran from mathematical theory to the operating field. Experimental units were installed on the USS Lexington, and, when they stopped working, he volunteered to go to Pearl Harbor in 1942. He fixed the problem when the ship sailed off-shore during the invasion of Tarawa.[2]

That’s an intro that makes the entry hard to close! Last I knew, Forrester is still alive – more about that later.

The point here is that if you hope to design a governmental intervention that will have its desired effect, you’re in deep and dark waters – there are a lot of unintended consequences waiting for you! Like growing old, designing government is not for sissies!

As one f’rinstance, would YOU like to be in charge of redesigning how government(s) regulate the finance industry?

Have you noticed that since we discovered that some financial institutions are “too big to fail” many of them have gotten bigger, by swallowing their smaller, weaker cousins?

Does that result make the financial system more stable? Stay ‘chuned…