Thoughts on the Design of Government from December, 1980

Beyond the Beltway no one cares how the Federal government is organized. They want it to work. Both President Carter and President Nixon made reorganizing the government high priority, high visibility objectives. Both efforts failed. Moving intact programs from place to place is a waste of time. Beyond the Beltway no one’s life is touched by the Postal Service or the Department if Agriculture. You see the postman or the county agent. It’s the program, not the department that matters, and program by program the Federal government must be rethought and redesigned.

For example, no one wants more injuries among America’s workers, but a lot of people dislike OSHA immensely. If we can agree on the need to make workplaces safer, the question becomes can we design an effective program that is less costly and less interventionist than OSHA? One candidate would be a national Workmans Compensation program with teeth: if payments to workers were really equal to the damage done, firms would find ways to protect their workers. Their insurance companies would see to that. Under such a program, the money changing hands would go to injured workers rather than to today’s army of clerks, both within and opposing OSHA. Armies of clerks, whether public or private, contribute nothing to the balance of payments and even less to national productivity.

Countercyclical public works programs, intended to cushion recession, contribute instead to the next boom. The economy is on the upswing again by the time (a) the Congress notes a downturn and passes a bill, (b) the Economic Development Administration in Commerce passes out the money, (c) state and local governments pass it out again, and (c) the contractors do the work. The Pharaohs invented countercyclical public works, i.e., the Pyramids, thousands of years ago. Why can’t we come up with a program design that works?

The Law Enforcement Assistance Administration has not reduced crime in America. Soon we won’t have LEAA, but we will still have crime. What should we do next?
Problems such as unsafe workplaces, unemployment during recessions, and crime cannot be solved by reorganizing. We need to find new and better program designs. The search for solutions must be broad and thorough, in states and localities as well as abroad, in the past as well as the present, and across functional and disciplinary boundaries. Departmental staff, congressional staff, and lobbyists too often are bound to the program designs and commitments of the past.

No one now looks regularly at our existing Federal programs to see if they can be improved, if less costly or less interventionist designs might accomplish the same goals as well or better, or if indeed the programs are needed at all. New programs do not receive the scrutiny they deserve.

Most people agree on the goals which government has set out to meet, although their priorities may differ. Through an across the board review of the means we have chosen to reach those goals, we can redesign government programs to be both cheaper and more effective. But the job must begin with the program, not the agency and never the department.

To quote William Blake:
“He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars;
General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer,
For Art and Science cannot exist but in minutely organized Particulars
And not in generalizing Demonstrations of the Rational Power.”

The time is now.

Robert A. Knisely
December 1980

60th Harvard Reunion Brief

By next June, Susan and I will have been married twenty years and we will have welcomed our eleventh grandchild! Our granddog, Buddy, will be two and a half. Life goes on.

We have survived the Time of Covid with the help of Zoom, Amazon, masks, tests, and many vaccine shots. We spent last Thanksgiving in Sebastopol, California, with eighteen relatives – all tested, both coming and going. I have been going up to Far Muse, in West Virginia, almost weekly: ‘forest bathing’ alone on 110 acres of mountaintop — and mowing and cutting trees, first down and then up. My 2018 Honda Ridgeline, with the big H on the tailgate painted crimson, has now passed 100,000 miles.

Looking back at my career in government, I’m most proud of six things. First, in 1972 I headed the US Delegation to the United Nations’ First World Conference on Informatics in Government, held in Florence, Italy. My favorite phrase in Italian? “Duo cioccolato, per favore” to the street ice cream vendors. Second, in 1973 as part of the Energy Emergency Task Force responding to the Arab Oil Embargo, a colleague and I collected, collated, and edited the proposed regulations implementing the Emergency Petroleum Allocation Act – all over one weekend! Our draft was published without further revision. Third, as Deputy General Counsel and Staff Director of the Presidential Clemency Board in 1974 – 1975, I led the creation, operation, and phaseout of a Presidential agency with a staff of 605 detailees, including 450 attorneys, in less than one year. We presented 16,000 applications individually to panels of the Board. Fourth, while at the National Endowment for the Arts in 1983, I directed a team that redesigned and began automating the grant processing system, resulting in a 41% reduction in processing time – and John Naisbitt’s book, Reinventing the Corporation, came out later, in 1985. Fifth, I created a new operating administration in the Department of Transportation, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics – one of thirteen principal statistical agencies in the Federal government. Beginning in 1992 with zero staff and $90 million over six years, in 1998 BTS had a staff of 45 and was given $186 million for the next six years. Sixth, I helped initiate and then direct Vice President Al Gore’s National Performance Review, 1993 – 1995.

Over my thirty-year career, I worked in seven cabinet departments and another seven small agencies and special projects –and early on, I began to wonder how governmental responses to perceived problems were designed and chosen. I wrote my first paper on program design in 1977. That paper and many more can be found on my website, My resume is there too, at I have given several presentations on program design, among them at George Washington University, Anne Arundel Community College, and two (2016 & 2019) at the Policy Studies Organization’s Dupont Conferences in Washington ( The GWU presentation is available on YouTube HERE (it’s only 22 minutes long). In 2017, George Richardson ’62 and I taught a Special Studies course at Chautauqua: Designing Government for the 21st Century.

And now I’m engaged with a small group (from Maine to California) working on developing an open, interactive website to be called DG Forum that we hope will bring attention to design issues around government, governance, and the governed. It should be up in 2022. Crowdsourcing will be an important part of problem solving going forward. Given the state of the world, and of democracy in 2021, this seems all too necessary. If these issues interest you, I cannot recommend too highly Solving Public Problems, by Beth Simone Noveck.

And in case this all sounds far too serious, I should point out that I still PUN-ish my friends and relatives. When we were starting BTS, we used to visit the Census Bureau’s offices in Suitland Maryland, and I’d drive my staff crazy by humming and whistling Annie’s Song, by John Denver. The first line is “You fill up my senses” (“You fill up my census” – get it?) I’ve been meeting every other year or so with some of my Dunster roomies, or The Happy Fifth as we called ourselves. In 2021 Phil Bradley, Shaw Bridges, John Goldman, myself (all et ux) and Jim Pickering met for several days in St. Michaels, MD. And they roll their eyes…

Otherwise, life goes on. I have few health issues beyond an occasional bout with arthritis (“That Greek bastard”). I get enough cardio minutes walking Buddy daily that I may outlive him!

We plan to be in Cambridge for our 60th Reunion. You may find me at the Harvard Book Store or next door at Mr. Bartley’s, sitting with a burger, onion rings, and a western frappe (chocolate, of course). And I hope to see you at our 70th Reunion in 2032.

May the forest be with you!