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.]