Returning to a Government of Competence

This year, I attended the ASPA National Convention in Seattle. One panel was several members of the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) raising the question of what advice should they provide to the new administration and Congress. One of the commentators lamented how do you get them to read it.

Forget a stack of professionally bound policy white papers; give them Donald F. Kettl’s 2016 book Escaping Jurassic Government: How to Recover America’s Lost Commitment to Competence.

Kettl’s reminds us that the roots of our current bureaucratic system were designed to counter flagrant government corruption, cronyism and chicanery. Progressives like President Teddy Roosevelt and New York Governor Fiorello H. La Guardia took up the mission to fulfill Lincoln’s immortal words “a government of the people, by the people and for the people” to achieve a prime constitutional directive – “to form a more perfect Union.” In this new regime, policies were fiercely debated. But once adopted, both political parties resourced the appropriate bureaucracy to ensure it could deliver competent services to the citizens it served. The World War 2 slogan “it’s good enough for government work” meant the contractor/product had met the highest standards and test to serve our fighting men and women and citizens on the homefront.

Today, the great battles over policies continue. The policies promise more than can be realistically delivered. Both parties ensure bureaucratic incompetence as they fail to offer the necessary resources. We now have a government that fails Lincoln’s test, the Constitution’s prime directive, is deemed incompetent, and has changed the meaning of “it’s good enough for government work.” 71 percent of the nation’s electorate says we’re going in the wrong direction. Regardless of your political bent, it was clearly shown Tuesday night, people have had enough.

Kettl argues that if something doesn’t change soon, the American government will go the way of the Jurassic dinosaurs. He examines four functional areas: people, interweaving, risks, and evidence to layout a concept of leveraged government to meet the demands of this century. He cites failures of government ranging from Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy to the failed online launch of “Obamacare.” There is good news, he cites where bureaucrats unwilling to accept the status quo dealt by their political masters have tried to transform and leverage their limited resources to do better for the people they serve.

It’s easy to complain about government. It’s easy to believe there is no hope, no strategy, no future for our system. Read Kettl’s book. It offers a strategy and mindset that doesn’t radically change how we now deliver governmental services, but it does offer a path out of the Jurassic age into this century.

Can the bureaucratic ship turn around?

In early 1993, as a military communications planner, I worked with peers and White House planners to prepare for the 50th Anniversary of D-Day in Europe. In these early days of the Clinton administration, the military wasn’t highly regarded, maybe not even trusted. Remember, his view of the military had its basis in the Vietnam. Era. A year later, when White House staffers came to Europe, their attitude had radically changed. They appreciated the military. When you gave the Department of Defense a mission, it got done. This wasn’t their experience with other federal agencies.

After Vietnam, the military was loathsome to many. Today, it is the highest trusted institution by the American people. What happened? The senior leaders regrouped, refocused, retrained, retooled and resourced the restructuring of the institution. The key was the establishment and indoctrination of these values: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honesty and personal courage.

The same can happen to the American bureaucracy at all governmental levels. The missing elements are leadership and commitment by our political masters and those responsible for leading the bureaucracy.

Pray the new Administration and Congress hears the call. Pray they respond.


Submitted by Larry Keeton

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