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!

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.]

The PRAWN Challenge

Presidential Rank Award Winners Network (PRAWN)

Summary: Each year, a small cadre of top performing Federal executives is selected for a Presidential Rank Award.  An information network — the Presidential Rank Award Winners Network (PRAWN) — could link together current and retired award winners to create an invaluable resource to help agencies throughout government meet their increasing challenges.

Background: The Office of Personnel Management administers the Presidential Rank Award Program.    OPM says, “Recipients of this prestigious award are strong leaders, professionals, and scientists who achieve results and consistently demonstrate strength, integrity, industry and a relentless commitment to excellence in public service…” and “The evaluation criteria focus on leadership and results.”  In 1996, I was given a Presidential Rank Award. I was one of only 60 Distinguished Executives chosen from a career Senior Executive Service numbering 6,000. Being in that “1%” was something to be proud of.  I marveled at the expertise, commitment, and enthusiasm of my colleagues. After the White House ceremonies, we each went back to our agencies.  I regretted not having the opportunity to work with more of these outstanding people to improve our agencies.


  • The Presidential Rank Award winners are an invaluable resource. We are respected leaders and opinion shapers in our agencies. We are the institutional memory of government. We know the histories and constituencies – and limitations — of our agencies. We know of lurking vulnerabilities and opportunities yet to be explored. Many of us have experience that crosses multiple departments and agencies.
  • An information network would create a virtual community of experts. Creating a network of several hundred active and retired Presidential Rank Award winners would be easy and inexpensive with off-the-shelf software.
  • Today’s political and career leadership could be tapping this resource for ideas and assistance.  PRAWN could brainstorm short turn around, ‘red team’ responses to new proposals, with longer term discussions developed into white papers. As opinion shapers, PRAWN members could help sell new initiatives across agencies and departments.
  • This concept has proven highly effective. The Knowledge Management Division of the Virginia Department of Transportation assembled groups of senior civil engineers to advise their political leadership. They found that, even in groups of only a dozen or so, career staff were quite willing to offer candid advice – as a group. I did their site visit for the Kennedy School’s Ash Institute Innovations in American Government Awards in 2005. See HERE.
  • A demonstration of PRAWN could be started quickly. PRAWN could be supported by OPM and housed within an independent, nongovernmental entity such as the Senior Executives Association to assure its survival across Administrations. PRAWN might even evolve into a resource for state and local governments.

For more information, contact: Robert Knisely at

PRAWN Support from AKG

From: Andy Campbell <>

To: Bob Knisely <>

Sent: Sat, Jan 21, 2012 6:55 am

Subject: RE: Two upcoming meetings and “PRAWN” – a question for you! — Bob Knisely

Hi Bob –

I think it is great that you and Mike are pushing ahead with this.  It is a wonderful idea.

The technology that we can offer for consideration is Microsoft’s SharePoint.  While it can do “Facebook-like” things like blogs, wikis – it is also very capable of helping distributed workgroups manage projects.  It can provide “My Sites” where PRAWN members could describe themselves and their areas of expertise.  The security is robust, and can devolve down to the document level.  Access can be controlled for some parts of the site, and some not.  SharePoint is also nearly ubiquitous (as in “available” – although not necessarily used) across the Federal Government, so if PRAWN participants wanted to extend something into the Agency’s own SharePoint environment, that would work.

We have found that there are two basic ingredients of success for these kind of efforts – simplicity and user-driven design.  If we accept the notion that not all PRAWN members (particularly those born at a more comfortable distance from the end-of-days) will be technophiles, the key is to start simple.  It is also important that a “PRAWN core design team” create the first iteration of the PRAWN technical platform.  An added advantage of SharePoint is that it is very plastic – and can be rapidly configured.

Another element of all this could be something we call “User-Oriented Information Design” (UOID) which was refined by a guy named Bob Hiebeler, who was the worldwide Knowledge Management Director for Arthur Andersen.  It is organized around three simple questions – “who are you, where are you, and what do you want to do today?”  PRAWN may have the opportunity to do Knowledge Management right – a rare phenomenon.

OK – to your question: what is needed?

• A PRAWN SharePoint site with some start-up design by a small PRAWN

core group.  This would serve as a starter site for the growing network to adapt as mission and activity grow.

• A few early ideas about the nature of PRAWN activity – “what does PRAWN want to do today”?

• Some basic SharePoint training for the core design group (which we could provide)

• A SharePoint introductory curriculum for PRAWN members coming onto the platform

• One or more PRAWN “site custodians” who would be willing to watch over the site (make sure it isn’t getting cluttered, etc)


The Applied Knowledge Group has been in the SharePoint business for nine years – more or less since since SharePoint was released by Microsoft

• We designed and totally support the FAA’s Knowledge Services Network (KSN), which has 42,000 users and spans the entire air transportation sector

• We designed the DHS/USCIS Enterprise Collaboration Network (ECN) which has 22,000 users, and we continue to support it

• We are a Microsoft Gold Partner in collaboration and information sharing

• Several of our staff have high-level clearances

• We have an excellent relationship with Microsoft’s Federal Division, and have reach-back to Microsoft

Good luck on Monday and hi to Mike.


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

Dumb Design

This entry, ever expanding, lists news articles about attempts to correct societal imperfections, governmental and other, and their counterintuitive results, unintended consequences, and general misadventures – all very visible in hindsight.

1. NYT (07Aug11): The Phantom Menace of Sleep-Deprived Doctors, by Darshak Sanghavi. The father of young Libby Zion blamed sleepy doctors for the death of his daughter, and managed to get the rules changed nationwide so that medical residents can get some sleep. Took him 30+ years. Turns out that wasn’t the problem, and more sleep wasn’t the answer. Someone finally did what I’d call “systems analysis” and came up with better solutions for patient care.

2. NYT (06Aug11): Shortchanging Cancer Patients, by Ezekiel J. Emanuel. Fourteen of the 34 generic cancer drugs on the market in the US are in short supply this month. Going generic can drop a drug’s price by 90%, but President Bush’s Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement and Modernization Act of 2003 prevents raising prices by more than 6% every six months in the event of a subsequent supply/demand imbalance. So why bother, say the manufacturers. Clearly there was no Legislative Impact Statement done on that provision of the law! [BTW, Europe doesn’t have these shortages.]


In late 1966, a young litigator left the Civil Aeronautics Board and later that year went to work for the Office of General Counsel in the newly formed Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).  As he requested, he was assigned to the Legislation Division.

In 1967, he learned that HUD was charged with exploring how to impose safety standards on factory-built housing.  Then as now, there existed factories all over the country that manufactured shelter components, assembling them to various stages, for transportation to sites for final assembly, or placement.  A large fraction of such housing finds its market with families of slender means, especially rural families.  The Legislation Division was involved because it was assumed that new program authority would be required, if HUD were to perform safety regulation.  The closest thing that HUD had theretofore done was minimum standards for FHA insured housing.

For most legislation, the first step in the legislation development process is for policy makers to define a goal, then to see if legal authority exists to address the goal, and only then to formulate the additional legal authority that will be required to reach that goal.   In an agency such as HUD, created by organic statute (Department of Housing and Urban Development Act, Pub. L. 89-174), some necessary authorities will already exist in generic form (e.g., the authority to issue implementing regulations) so that legislative authority for additional undertakings can be confined to specific policy goals.

In this case, the goal — safety regulation — was generally clear, although policy discussions most likely addressed unavoidable uncertainties; that is, questions such as whether the administering agency’s regulatory powers should reach manufacturers or sellers or resellers, whether there should be a threshold of value of parts or all the components, whether to address non-factory matters such as foundations or tie-downs, and so on.

Legislation formulated as a part of the policy development process does not ordinarily proceed as if it is to be written on a blank slate.  Rather, knowing in general what the policy formulators are developing, the legislative draftsman will seek analogies, and whatever new authorities are required will then be drafted off existing enacted laws.  The form and content of the existing law also act as a checklist for the new legislation.

Crafting a new authority so that it resembles existing laws helps provide answers to some legitimate questions that the legislature will have.  These questions include:  Is there legislative precedent?  How long has such authority been on the books?  Has the constitutionality been challenged, and with what result?  What are the character of interests that will be affected?  How much specificity is desirable in the legislation, and how much should be left to the implementing regulations?  Drafting off an analogy will permit these and other questions to be addressed in a more informed manner.  It is similar to the preference of experienced lawyers for “litigated language” — language that has been contested in court — in drafting contracts.

For manufactured homes safety regulation, HUD’s Legislative Division was at a loss for an analogy.  But the new lawyer came up with one easily: safety regulation of air appliances. Why?

The existing staff members in the Legislation Division were world authorities on the laws of housing, finance, insurance, land use, takings, banking, safety and soundness regulation, economic development, and state and local government.  The analogy, however, was drawn from the experience of the new, and junior lawyer, in transportation law, consumer protection, and economic regulation, topics with which HUD then had no experience.  Moreover, to that point, the junior lawyer had been a litigator, not a legislative specialist.

The answer in this instance, of course, was fortuitous cross-pollination.  There neither was nor is today any index or encyclopedia or other compilation that would have permitted HUD to have found that analogy, or perhaps any other.

The analogy was the authority of the Federal Aviation Agency to regulate aircraft, and components and appliances under section 603, Federal Aviation Act of 1958, originally codified at 49 U.S.C. 1423, which is an ancestor of the authority now codified at 49 U.S.C. 44702, -4.

The authority for the Manufactured Home Construction and Safety Standards program was in title VI, Housing and Community Development Act of 1974 (such gestation periods are not unusual), Pub. L. 93-383.

[More than a generation later, after substantial elaboration and recasting for codification, the two statutes are still similar!]


(Many thanks to “the young litigator” — KNiZ)

Designing Government by Design

Robert A. Knisely, Esq.

September 7th, 2010

“There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”– Robert Kennedy (1)

“I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times.” — Thomas Jefferson

Executive Summary

In the absence of government, according to Thomas Hobbes, there are: No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Government’s role, then, is to change all that – to alter outcomes.

To do so effectively requires an understanding of society – past and present — and of past efforts to alter outcomes. In an age of increasingly complex, critical, and urgent problems, governments must also anticipate the future.

The resources needed include broad-based perspectives on society’s problems, accessible evaluations of past interventions, an extensive toolkit, a deliberative process, and a thorough vetting of proposed actions.

None of these are available to, or used by those designing government in America today.

A. Broad-based Perspectives

Any attempt to solve a problem must begin with an understanding of the problem in all its complexity – “things the way they are.” California’s restructuring its electricity market, as discussed in Chapter Two of the book “If We Can Put a Man on the Moon” makes this point. In sum, “After promising to reduce electricity costs by 25 percent or more, the new scheme saw electricity prices shoot through the roof, from around $30 to upwards of a staggering $1,000 to $1,500 per megawatt hour.”

We pride ourselves that ours is a government “of laws, not of men.” But as Oliver Wendell Holmes remarked, “In the law, an ounce of history is worth a pound of logic.” Apart from logic , we also need to enlist all of the relevant sciences. As I have said elsewhere, “Of the sciences overlooked, first and foremost are the sciences of complexity and the systems sciences developed around the time of WWII. Norbert Weiner and cybernetics come immediately to mind. There are many others, from game theory to highly reliable organizations.” Perhaps the most significant omission from the design of government is system dynamics. Computer simulation could be used both to sharpen our understanding of society’s interactions and to anticipate problems with our interventions. See Jay Forrester’s 1971 paper, “The Counterintuitive Behavior of Social Systems.”

Recommendation: Task the Congressional Research Service to create a checklist of the analytical methodologies and tools needed to describe societal problems and the systems surrounding them in sufficient detail to support legislative action. Provide for assistance from the General Accountability Office, the National Science Foundation, and the National Academies of Science and Engineering, as well as university centers such as Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, MIT’s Sloan School of Management, and SUNY/Albany’s Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy.

B. Accessible Evaluations

We need insightful evaluations of what’s working and what’s not, and why. These feedback loops in the Federal government have been evolving over the past half-century — or perhaps styles just change.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, “program evaluation” was popular. A search for “program evaluation” on the General Accountability Office’s website returns 4,573 hits. In the mid-‘70’s I started an Office of Program Evaluation at the Department of Commerce. In 1989 I became Deputy Assistant Secretary for Budget and Programs at Transportation. The earlier office title, Budget and Program Evaluation, had been changed. No formal evaluations were being done or requested.

The less said about Zero-based budgeting the better. It was a passing fad of the Carter Administration (1977 – 1981).

The [now] IBM Center for the Business of Government published “Using Evaluation to Support Performance Management“ in January 2001. It states “[N]ine of the 13 federal departments contacted for this study had downsized their central evaluation capacity since the 1980s or never had a central evaluation office. The number of staff for program evaluation work has declined steadily from the late 1970s into the 1990s.”

The Government Performance and Results Act was passed in 1993, sounding the death knell for program evaluation. GPRA only looks forward: to plans, goals, and objectives one and five years in the future. Yet GPRA is now fading from view. A search for “GPRA” on GAO’s website returned 202 hits between 1992 and 1999, 91 between 2000 and 2009, and only one for 2010.

Mitch Daniels, President George W. Bush’s Office of Management and Budget Director, introduced the Program Assessment Rating Tool in a memo dated January 14th, 2003. PART’s archive at OMB has guidance only through FY2008. The website promising PART results — — also ends with FY2008 data. I found only two references to PART on the OMB website.

On February 18th, 2010, Jeffrey Zients, President Obama’s Chief Performance Officer, laid out his agenda: “Here are the six performance strategies: eliminate waste, drive top priorities, leverage purchasing scale, close the IT performance gap, open government to get results and finally, attract and motivate top talent. These are the six strategies that represent the biggest opportunity to boost performance and get government working for the American people.”

When “government is working for the American people,” our children get educated, the eggs we buy are free from salmonella, the American economy is creating jobs, medical research is tackling diseases, and so forth. We hold competitions, set safety standards, regulate capital flows, fund medical colleges, and on and on. These are the tools of government.

Yet nowhere, from program evaluation to performance strategies, is there any discussion of whether the Federal government picked up the right tools to ensure that government is working. And there is no collection of program evaluation, or GPRA, or PART, or performance strategy reports. These would need to be extensively indexed by tool, and made available for research into the choice of tools for the next problem.

The tool is usually a “given” from the perspective of the Executive Branch, and all too seldom are the questions asked, “Can this tool solve this problem?” and “What are the possible unintended consequences of wielding this tool?”

Two quick examples come to mind. First, as discussed elsewhere, President Nixon’s Wage and Price Controls could not effectively control prices. At a restaurant on Capitol Hill the price of the souvlaki stayed the same, but the portions got smaller over time. Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety made nationwide enforcement of Wage and Price Controls impossible. And they failed.

Second, again discussed more fully elsewhere, the introduction of food stamps in rural Louisiana (a) enriched the local storekeepers, (b) permitted both the hiring of white clerks and the firing of Black warehousemen, and (c) was soon driving the poorest of the poor out of state.

Liberals such as Hubert Humphrey and Estes Kefauver had pushed for food stamps for decades. President Kennedy announced a pilot program in February 1961, and President Johnson made it permanent in 1964. The program required that recipients purchase their food stamps. I found that the really poor people of Louisiana were not in the cash economy at all. They could not pay for the stamps. And so they left for the cities of the North.

I’ll never believe that’s what Hubert Humphrey had in mind.

Recommendation: Task either CRS or GAO with creating and maintaining an online database of studies of the effectiveness of government interventions, in both America and abroad, indexed by tool (intervention type), and structured for use in tool choice. Provide sufficient resources to enlist the support of the academic community.

C. An Extensive Toolkit

The “Bible” of these tools is a 669-page book, “The Tools of Government” edited by Lester Salamon. Dr. Salamon directs the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies in Baltimore. Amazon lists 91 publications by Dr. Salamon. The Oxford University Press published the book in 2002. An earlier version of the book, “Beyond Privatization: The Tools of Government Action,” was published in 1989.

“Tools of Government” lists fifteen tools of public action, and has chapters on each ranging from about twenty to forty pages. There are an additional five chapters, from introduction to summary. The tools are:

• Direct Government

• Government Corporations and Government-Sponsored Enterprises

• Economic Regulation

• Social Regulation

• Government Insurance

• Public Information

• Corrective Taxes, Charges, and Tradable Permits

• Contracting

• Purchase-of-Service Contracting

• Grants

• Loans and Loan Guarantees

• Tax Expenditures

• Vouchers

• Tort Liability

I would add the criminal law, and there may be other tools yet to be invented. These are more than enough to start with!

Many, many years ago, I used to play a game at Washington parties. Friends would come up with a societal problem, and I would attempt to find at least three “tools” that could be used to fix it. (They were really wild parties.)

Here’s a current example. Massey Energy was cited for 1,342 safety violations over the past five years. In only 25 of these, fines of $10,000 or more were proposed, and Massey has settled only four. In 2009, Massey had gross sales of $2.3 billion on 36.7 million tons of American coal. Massey’s lawyers and the government’s lawyers are arm-wrestling over peanuts.

President Obama’s FY2011 budget for the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) calls for over $350 million and 2,430 workers. This is for the regulations that have been generating resistance, not compliance.

Since coal mining is inherently dangerous, the Congress should require each mine owner to pay the heirs of every minor killed or injured on their property a sum adequate to encourage the owners to take responsibility for safety. Each fatality should cost at least $10 million, payable immediately. The 25 fatalities from the Upper Big Branch mine would have cost $250 million, or about 25% of Massey’s 2009 net income. This would get even Don Blankenship to focus on safety in his mines. It would also bring some relief to the families.

The coal industry’s response to such legislation would be to buy insurance, and the insurance industry’s response would be to insist on the best and most up-to-date safety procedures from around the world. There would be no lengthy publication and comment period, as required for Federal regulations. The insurance companies would then do the inspections to assure compliance. And the cost of the insurance would be passed on to the consumers of the coal, rather than all taxpayers.

In sum, Tort Liability would be a cheaper and more effective tool to achieve safer coal mining than Economic Regulation, and it would allocate the costs correctly.

We need both principals and staff in the Legislative and Executive Branches to take a similar agnostic and open-ended approach during their initial deliberations about the problems they face. For as the psychologist Abraham Maslow once said, “if the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail”.

Recommendation: Task OMB with implementing Recommendation DES01: Activate Program Design as a Formal Discipline from Vice President Gore’s National Performance Review (1993). (3)

D. A Deliberative Process and Thorough Vetting

The design of a particular intervention should be in three parts. First, an initial scan by an apolitical entity. Second, a wide-ranging team approach that develops several proposals for further review. Third, the widest possible review (i.e., “crowdsourcing”) of the chosen option and the decision-making process itself.

1. The Initial Scan. The initial scan should be performed by an apolitical organization or organizations. The Congressional Research Service, aided perhaps by the National Academy of Sciences, would be an obvious choice. The CRS should be asked to respond to the following questions, among others:

a. Describe the problem being addressed, from an inclusive set of perspectives: historical, economic, systemic, and others.

b. Describe past and present attempts by American institutions (Federal, state, local, private, not-for-profit) to alleviate the problem.

c. Describe past and present attempts around the world to alleviate the problem.

d. Describe past and present attempts around the world to alleviate similar problems.

e. Compare the results obtained by the various tools used in addressing this and similar problems, in terms of cost, effectiveness, and unintended consequences, among other impacts.

f. Annotate all responses fully, including hyperlinks in an electronic version of the resulting report.

g. Accompany the full report with two summaries: one of two pages or fewer, one of ten pages or fewer.

2. The In-House Proposals. The in-house proposal should be the work product of a small team, including at least one attorney and preferably a design professional.(2) Ideally, the team would have representatives of both the Executive and Legislative Branches.

a. The group should contain, and also have access to, expertise in the problem area at every level from conceptual to service delivery. Members of the group should be encouraged to seek additional advice.

b. The group should engage in scenario planning or other future envisioning in the problem area as well as in the larger society.

c. The group should develop at minimum three proposals to address the problem under study using different tools (see above).

d. The proposals should be “red-teamed” (i.e., strongly critiqued) by a separate team of experts within the same organizational context.

e. The proposal chosen should be developed more fully, with particular emphasis on the likely unintended consequences.

f. The final proposal should be incorporated into a draft Legislative Impact Statement, which must include the initial scan verbatim. The draft LIS must be prepared in accordance with a set structure and format.

3. The Public Proposal.

a. The draft Legislative Impact Statement must be made available in electronic form to the public for comment in a timely manner. Comment must be encouraged.

b. Resources must be made available for the review and consideration of all comments.

c. A final Legislative Impact Statement must be again made available to the public in electronic form prior to any implementation.

Recommendation: Task OMB with implementing Recommendation DES04: Commission Program Design Courses from Vice President Gore’s National Performance Review (1993).


(1) Robert Kennedy was quoting a line delivered by the Serpent in George Bernard Shaw’s play Back To Methuselah : “You see things; and you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say, ‘Why not?’”. (Source)

(2) Design as a discipline.

In 1969, in The Sciences of the Artificial, Herbert Simon wrote: “…The professional schools will reassume their professional responsibilities just to the degree that they can discover a science of design, a body of intellectually tough, analytic, partly formalizable, partly empirical, teachable doctrine about the design process.
“…[S]uch a science of design [is] not only possible but is actually emerging at the present time. It has already begun to penetrate the engineering schools, particularly through programs in computer science and ’systems engineering,’ and business schools through management science.”

This has come to pass. Check out the Stanford University School of Design, read this introduction to the world of design, and watch this video of one of the leaders in the field.

Design professionals are deeply involved in the most innovative work of the private sector around the world. It’s long past time to bring them into the design of government.

(3) Program design at the National Performance Review.

Early in the spring of 1993, I discussed program design with Vice President Gore during my tenure as a Deputy Director of his National Performance Review. He said that revisiting the design of Federal programs was too difficult, and that we didn’t have the time. I did manage to get a small team assigned to write Rethinking Program Design, one of the fourteen NPR Systems Reports.

The report’s four recommendations were:

1. Activate Program Design as a Formal Discipline

2. Establish Pilot Program Design Capabilities in One or Two Agencies

3. Encourage the Strengthening of Program Design in the Legislative Branch

4. Commission Program Design Courses

Addendum: The problem in a nutshell

The following quotation from The New Yorker (October 7, 1985, p. 30) on the demise of Manhattan’s Westway captures well the frustration that most Americans feel when confronted with the institutions of government that now exist:

“Deeply embedded somewhere in our thoughts or wishes — no doubt in some corner of the brain that is immune to factual evidence — is the belief that public institutions and programs exist to serve public needs. In this perhaps naive view, the links of the chain of public action begin with the identification of a need of society, by, say, a civic-minded group; next, measures to meet the need are debated and decided upon; and, finally, some institutional arrangement is made, and people set to work. It’s hard to help noticing, though, that in actuality things proceed, as often as not, in quite a different sequence. In this other sequence, the chain begins with the institutional arrangement, and only then is a need sought out — a need that will justify the continuing functioning of the institution. In other words, instead of starting with a problem and looking for an answer one starts with an answer and looks for the problem.”