Summary: Many in America think government should be run differently. It is seen as opaque, unresponsive and bureaucratic, allergic to tough tradeoffs, paralyzed by partisanship, and fiscally irresponsible.
Not surprisingly, our panel came out of the gate with no-nonsense suggestions for government reform: Mayor Bloomberg’s health advice included helping "more in Washington quit smoking the partisan pipe"; former Senator Bill Bradley imagined a "transparent federal budget that is online and keyword accessible"; and David Walker emphasized "the President's role as Chief Executive Officer."
Accountability, transparency, and sustainability emerged as strong themes, and reform ideas included:
- Innovative policy-making to encourage bi-partisan collaboration
- Publicly funded campaign financing shored up by Internet donations
- CEO-style leadership at all levels of government
- Responsibility as an anchor for bureaucratic redesign
- Performance measures to foster accountability
- Budgetary decision-making based on measurable outcomes
- Reformulated entitlement spending
- Transparency via the Internet - including easy-to-use, searchable government records
- Enhanced citizen involvement in government decisions including budget trade-offs
- Encouraging young people to join the government workforce
- Merit-based hiring as a counter to partisan bias
- A new Federal commission to monitor government operation and recommend reforms
Highlights of the discussion are summarized in this PDF.
Posted June 17, 2008, 9:00am
Welcome to the inaugural discussion of NewTalk.org. Thanks especially to the very distinguished panel assembled here to discuss whether it's possible to fix government.
I feel like we're about to gather round a sick patient with a terrible malady, like doctors in a teaching hospital. Most Americans seem to think the case is hopeless. But we're the hopeful ones (maybe), so let's go at it.
The symptoms are well-known:
- Performance that gets poorer as we go from basic services to broader social needs, like healthcare;
- An unwillingness by Washington, almost pathologically, to face up to basic tradeoffs; and
- A void of accountability, except in the worst sense of "gotcha" for some moral or technical infraction.
I have my own hypotheses about the causes and cures, having to do with the fact that government is encased in legal concrete. Inertia, zealously guarded by special interests, is the m.o. of federal government.
But we have some of best and most experienced leaders here. What do you think, Mayor Bloomberg?
Posted June 17, 2008, 9:09am
Thanks for the opportunity to participate in this discussion, Philip. This is my first time participating in an online discussion, but I can assure you I am not at home wearing my pajamas. This is a great group, the kind of crowd I'd enjoy having over for dinner. So I'm just going to pretend that we're all sitting around a big table. I always learn something when I break bread with diverse groups of talented people, and I expect this conversation will be no different.
I don't know that there's a more important question hanging over this campaign than how we can fix our federal government, or at least get it in reasonably decent working condition. Philip began with the analogy of a sick patient, which seems apt. There are plenty of aspects of the disease, but one of them, at least as I see it, is addiction to partisanship. It consumes good and smart people and leads them to put politics ahead of progress. Any position can be rationalized to meet the needs of the party's primary voters, campaign funders, and special interests. There's a certain dishonesty and deception inherent in that, and it prevents conversations about the hard choices that need to be made to achieve real reform.
I understand that we're not going to completely eliminate partisanship from Washington. But I don't think we're going to make real progress on the fundamental challenges we face—health care, global warming, education, and energy, to name a few—until we help more of those in Washington quit smoking the partisanship pipe.
Quitting any addiction takes guts and a willingness to reject peer pressure. And so my question to the group is: How do we help more candidates and elected officials acquire that courage? Our patient exhibits other harmful conditions that courage can help cure, including a deep-seated fear of innovation, accountability, and, as Philip mentioned, the trade-offs involved in hard decisions. So it seems to me to be a good place to start the conversation. Doctors?
Posted June 17, 2008, 9:50am
Kudos to Philip Howard for launching New Talk and for providing yet another great service to the country.
Many government programs do not work because they lack proper incentives and the necessary accountability. The incentives are to get money out the door without really worrying about whether the programs are actually benefitting real people. Katrina cleanup is but one example.
The Mayor is correct about partisanship. One solution is to look at our entire reapportionment process—a process that leads to many "safe" congressional districts coupled with a tendency to promote candidates in both parties who pander to their ideological extremes. Moderates are therefore endangered and derided. We end up with a large number of noncompetitive races and more elected officials pandering to the extreme factions of their parties.
This situation makes compromises and governing from the center extremely difficult.
Posted June 17, 2008, 10:25am
After almost 10 years serving on the front line of government transformation and accountability as Comptroller General of the United States and head of the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), I can say with confidence that the federal government needs a major overhaul. Don’t get me wrong, most public servants in government are highly educated and dedicated professionals who are committed to “the greater good.” At the same time, the government has become a bloated bureaucracy that is based on past conditions and in too many cases, federal programs and policies can’t demonstrate that they are generating real results that benefit the American people.
The truth is, today’s federal government is a far cry from what our Founders intended. It now comprises over 20 percent of the economy, up from about 2 percent at the outset of our republic. In fact, all of the major express and enumerated responsibilities for the federal government under the Constitution are contained in the 38 percent of the budget that is called “discretionary spending.” Can you believe that national defense, homeland security and the federal judicial system are among the items that are deemed to be “discretionary!” Over 62 percent of the budget is on autopilot and the health care portion of it is out of control. If we want our collective future to be better than our past, we need to get back to basics, start focusing on the future, and separate the programs and policies that work from the ones that don’t
Posted June 17, 2008, 10:45am
We agree that there's too much partisanship. Every president since Carter has vowed to end partisanship and clean out special interest influence. The situation has only gotten worse.
My question is whether partisanship is the disease or the symptom? All of us have tried to make things happen in Washington, and have run into a wall. I don't think it's because Washington is filled with aspiring Karl Roves and Lee Atwaters.
There are lots of good people in DC.
But the underlying structure makes it hard to change anything. They can't even get rid of the farm subsidy.
This is a phenomenon that Tom Mann has studied extensively. The demands of the public for short-term gratification exacerbate the problem. But I believe leaders would emerge if we let them. At least in part, the polarized politics reflects the ossified structures. Unable to compete by accomplishing things, politicians resort to slash and burn partisanship.
For this reason as well, I agree with David Walker that it's time for a major overhaul of government.
Posted June 17, 2008, 11:23am
Let us pause for a moment before reaching a conclusion that partisanship is the bane of good government. Political parties are essential institutions in every democracy in the world, for framing choices for the electorate, organizing politicians within government, and providing a mechanism for accountability. Nonpartisanship or bipartisanship is not demonstrably preferable to a strong and competitive party system. Our current problems stem from the ideological polarization of the parties at a time of rough parity between those parties. This has been long in the making and involves ordinary citizens as well as activists and politicians. Until we change the larger political environment in this country, we are unlikely to improve the performance of government. That is partly what is at stake in this election. Political leaders and energized electorates can make a difference. The problems we face are societal, not just governmental.
Posted June 17, 2008, 11:46am
The readiness of the public to make better policy choices abounds in politics at the state and local levels, though public policy isn’t often covered in local or regional media.
The leadership of mayors Nickels (climate change) and Bloomberg (illegal guns), Dixon (foreclosures) Governor Schwarzenegger (water planning—an initiative close to my heart) and Governor Granholm (predatory lending) are just a few examples of political leaders who have bridged the partisan gap in the development of bold new policy.
In local politics it is impossible to move the discussion forward without the support of the state and regional leadership or it is so difficult that the small battles overwhelm you before you can be successful. Getting traction on the issues Mayor Bloomberg lists as fundamental challenges in his response require not just local buy-in but recognition, full debate and resolve at the national level. The success of engaging newcomers via the internet these last few months in the presidential campaigns may hold a key to mobilizing and engaging a broader base of Americans in a robust policy debate. Bringing greater use of the internet to debate the issues and for public education on the issues starting in elementary school could boost nonpartisan collaboration.
As for courage…. Courage follows self-confidence and self-confidence often results from access to top-class education opportunities and a full range of developmental experiences that aren’t bought at the grocery store. Courage also develops from supportive grassroots organizing where activism is seen at the ground level. It is also important that candidates have money and mentors.
The Council of Elders on the international level (President Carter, President Mandela, etc.) is a new strategy for intervention and mentoring. But old problems die hard and only new, innovative and brazen solutions can “fix government.” Who is minding the store on the development of nonpartisanship in national policy? Is now the time for a Council of Peers…dedicated to nonpartisan debate and policy?
Can the US Conference of Mayors or National League of cities step up?
Posted June 17, 2008, 11:52am
The Founders of our great nation were skeptical about the role that political parties might play. They called them “factions.” Today we have many factions, most are called “special interest groups.” While partisanship is a problem, especially if it serves to trump the public interest, it has existed and will always exist to varying degrees. My larger concern is the growing “ideological divide” in Congress and the number of “career politicians” who become vested in the status quo. These represent major obstacles to the type of dramatic and fundamental reforms that are needed in some areas.
Posted June 17, 2008, 12:16pm
I believe David is correct. Ideological rigidity has become institutionalized in the party system and reinforced in Congress. But let us not forget the importance of the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. An effective president, empowered by an electoral majority, can begin a process of reframing problems and choices in a way to break down the ideological polarization.
Posted June 17, 2008, 12:25pm
There have been comments about a sick patient and the many problems that exist. I can agree with much of what has been said about the diagnosis and the possible causes: partisanship, fear of innovation, and even lack of accountability. But ordinarily, a doctor approaches a patient with some sympathy (or compassion) and respect for the individual. So let me thank David Walker for his commendation of public servants and suggest that for a long time, our "leaders" have run against Washington, engaged in bureaucrat bashing, and been dismissive, if not contemptuous, of many of government's functions.
It is true, this is not the government envisioned by the founding fathers, but we are no longer a small, agrarian, relatively homogeneous society. As we try to fix the patient, let's take a realistic view of the world the patient will be living and working in.
Posted June 17, 2008, 12:34am
Elected officials must serve the public interest. That’s not happening, and the public knows it, which creates a cynicism and distrust of government that is not healthy for our democracy. Until we change from top to bottom the way we pay for our political campaigns, until we get the wealthy special interests out of the business of paying for our political campaigns, we will not have policies that are truly in the public’s interest. Common Cause advocates for voluntary public financing of state and federal campaigns. Three states—Maine, Arizona and Connecticut—have already adopted voluntary systems of public funding to pay for their legislative races, and it is working well, bringing new and more diverse voices to government. It generally works like this: A candidate collects small donations from a certain number of constituents in a legislative district to prove his or her viability as a candidate, and then gets a public grant to run his or her campaign, in exchange for a promise not to raise or spend outside additional dollars. That way, elected officials take office without feeling beholden to the interests or people who gave generously to get them there, and are free to make and/or support policies in critical areas like health care, social justice and the environment, that are for the public good. That would go a long way toward improving government.
Posted June 17, 2008, 12:40pm
Thanks for doing this, Philip; it should be both fun and enlightening. You've assembled a very impressive group.
Partisanship will always be with us, to one degree or another, particularly at the federal level. Part of the problem is that our federal system is hampered by checks and balances, compared to other countries. When big changes require 60 votes in a Senate in which Wyoming has as many seats as California, it is extremely difficult to push reform through our Congress. Parliamentary systems move much, much faster. Our checks and balances prevent us from making mistakes, but they also prevent us from addressing very real problems.
Fortunately, our political system is far more decentralized than most other developed democracies. Our state and local governments have more power and do more of government's work than their counterparts overseas, and they are less hampered by both checks and balances and partisanship. Hence our most successful reforms and leaders tend to be at the state and local level.
Posted June 17, 2008, 12:49pm
I agree with Thomas Mann that the problems we face are not just governmental but also societal.
People fear change. They will often resist reform even when it is in their best interest.
Some employees in my office were fearful about the civil service reform instituted by Governor Jeb Bush's Service First Initiative. The initiative followed the "reinventing government" policies of the Chiles-MacKay Administration from 1993-99 some of which were far-reaching but which retained broad defenses to employee discipline and firing. Enacted into law in 2001, Service First redefined cause for dismissal to be "in the sound discretion of the agency head," leaving protection for abuse of discretion. The reforms were balanced by improvements in benefits such as annual leave awards at the outset of the year rather than accruing at the beginning of the year.
Seven years later, and there is nary a word in my office about any negative impact from Service First. On the contrary, the employees, still here because they are good at their jobs, are enjoying their improved benefits.
Posted June 17, 2008, 12:54pm
David Maloney and Sally are on to something important. What are the conditions under which public servants can do their jobs effectively? The bureaucracy everyone hates is worst for those who dedicate their lives trying to serve the public. Someone at FEMA buys 10,000 mobile homes for Katrina, and then can't use them because of a rule against mobile homes in flood plains. Shouldn't we overhaul government so that people have authority to use their judgment, and others have authority to hold them accountable? That's how things get accomplished.
The patient's weak because it's tied in knots.
Posted June 17, 2008, 1:07pm
I agree [with Thomas] that the President plays a critically important role. After all, while the Congress is a co-equal branch of the federal government, Congress is a committee and you can’t run a country by committee. A lot of emphasis has been placed on the President being our Commander-in-Chief. However, not enough emphasis has been placed on the President’s role as Chief Executive Officer of the United States. Both roles are important and we need a President who can perform both roles well.
And I agree [with David M.] that most humans don’t like to change, especially if they are close to the end of their working career. However, change is essential given our current condition and future path. Furthermore, change is possible with committed, inspired and persistent leadership that is willing to take some short-term pain before you obtain the longer-term gain. The career executives and I “partnered for progress” and made a number of dramatic and some controversial changes with very positive overall results during my nine plus years at GAO. If GAO can do it, it can be done elsewhere. After all, GAO’s employees are “professional skeptics” by training.
Posted June 17, 2008, 1:11pm
Philip is right; federal employees are tied up in knots. I also agree with Bob Edgar: campaign finance reform is a key to ending the gridlock in Washington.
The next administration needs to empower federal managers and employees to innovate. To a degree that is unimaginable to someone who has not served in the federal bureaucracy, they are tied up in red tape and undermined by long chains of command dominated by political appointees who neither value nor understand management. The Clinton-Gore reinventing government effort proved that aggressive efforts to empower and protect innovators within the bureaucracy pay huge dividends. Unfortunately, Congress did not pass the systemic reforms (such as civil service reform) that would have allowed this approach to be institutionalized.
Coupled with this, our next President should pursue a relentless focus on results, attached to real consequences for performance. He should construct his budgets around results, not departments (as Washington state, Iowa, and many cities and counties now do), weeding out programs that do not deliver value for money. He should create customer-friendly reporting on results—a series of "Consumer Reports" on national, state, and local government results. (The British Audit Commission provides a wonderful model that has been working for 20 years.) He should push civil service reform through Congress to allow real rewards for managers and employee teams that produce good results and real penalties for the few that don't.
Congress will always be the lagging element in the reform equation—which just means that powerful presidential leadership is essential. If we fail, the consequences will be dire. According to the Congressional Budget Office, current policy will bring us to a point within 15 years where Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and interest on the debt consume 100% of federal revenues. We are hurtling into a fiscal train wreck, and unless the next administration can put the train on very different tracks, we are all in trouble.
Posted June 17, 2008, 2:22pm
It is hard to argue with Bob Edgar that money is a corrupting influence in American politics.
How to prevent it from being so is the problem particularly when the Supreme Court sees the issue infused with First Amendment rights.
I wonder…what will turn out to be more effective in the long run: The McCain Feingold campaign finance reform law with all of its controls or the wide-open internet as a source of solicitation and small donations from individuals who are not a part of a special interest group?
Posted June 17, 2008, 4:17pm
Resistance to change is endemic in all large organizations: private, public, non-profit. Our efforts in Atlanta to merge our two courts met with fierce resistance at all levels of local government from judges to administrative staff to the City Council. Months later the skepticism remained. However, over time folks come around as they see how the change leads to improved performance (we are now providing the same courts services with less than half the resources we did before we began). They buy in because they see results. Those results are not attainable, however, without strong leadership and a willingness to stick to the plan. Reforms can be "compromised" to death. Now the second round of reforms are recommended by the very folks who resisted 3 years ago.
Strong leadership with a clear vision of what it wants to achieve and a willingness to stay the course is the key formula. Change needs to include a few key credible allies from within who will drive it. It takes both policy and organizational reform.
Posted June 17, 2008, 5:19pm
David Walker mentioned that greater emphasis needs to be paid to the role of president as Chief Executive Officer. I couldn't agree more. The CEO not only sets the agenda, he or she sets the tone. And this is where partisanship poisons the well. The trouble isn't with the parties themselves. As Tom Mann mentioned, they often play a useful organizing role in democracies around the world. The trouble is that there is a culture of party loyalty—enforced largely by the special interests—and a focus on the next election that have both been carried to the extreme, and both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue have fallen victim to it for some time now.
What I would be interested in hearing is this: What positions should we expect the presidential candidates to be taking that show that they are serious about pursuing outside-the-box ideas that have the potential to win support in both parties? For instance, David Osborne mentioned customer-service reporting measurements. This is standard operating procedure among Democrats and Republicans in the private sector, and we've brought it to New York City government. Why not in Washington?
Bipartisanship (or nonpartisanship) shouldn't be solely about compromise, which requires both parties to give up something they want. It should be about innovation, which requires a president and his staff to offer ideas that hold the potential to cut across traditional ideological lines and interest group considerations. It might ask both sides to take a risk, but it also promises benefits to both sides.
We've done this in our efforts around education, the environment, poverty, and other areas, and I know Mayor Franklin and plenty of other mayors have too. It's possible. But it begins with expecting our president to act as a CEO rather than a party leader.
Posted June 17, 2008, 5:24pm
Empowering people is obviously critical. However, the “red tape” that people complain about is generally the result of legislative bodies trying to curb past abuses by executive branches. We create new laws and regulations intended to prevent “bad” people from doing “bad” things, but those same regulations prevent “good” people from doing “good” things. We have spent a considerable amount of time and effort in the City of Atlanta trying to unravel some of this red tape by losing restrictions to provide our managers with more flexibility. It has been very difficult, particularly since many legislators equate micromanagement with oversight.
Our argument has been to rely on transparency in government. If people can see what is happening—that is, if they have visibility into the operation of government without having to micromanage it—then they are more apt to loosen the bureaucratic constraints. We are only scratching the surface in this area, but the advent of new areas of government—the focus on performance management and the use of online tools—suggests to me that we can open government up for oversight.
Posted June 17, 2008, 5:49pm
The mayors in our discussion obviously know what it means to get things done.
Mayor Bloomberg brings together the two strands of today's discussion nicely—one theme focusing on the corrosive effects of partisanship, and the other on the machinery of government. Someone needs to be the CEO; indeed many officials need to act like CEOs.
I'd like us to bore down into government and discuss how officials actually make choices. There's an assumption that officials aren't trying—but as Sally Katzen and David Walker point out, there are lots of good people who devote their lives to trying to serve the public.
Acting like a CEO requires the authority to make needed choices. And a teacher needs authority to run the classroom, and a budget director needs authority to make some hard tradeoffs. Every manager needs the authority to decide who's doing the job, and who's not. Otherwise the department is unmanageable.
In many areas of government officials don't feel free to make needed choices. Teachers are crushed by bureaucracy, and lack the authority to maintain control of the classroom. If you're a member of Congress, fixing one unintended consequence of one of thousands of laws requires you to get 217 other members, plus 60 Senators to vote with you. The more specific the law, the more the unintended consequences. Many people in Washington have given up. There's just too much that's wrong. Washington is like a junkyard of unintended consequences. So members of Congress, as Sally Katzen suggests, run against government, as if someone else were in charge.
Here's a hypothesis: Washington needs a radical spring cleaning. Examples: 1. The No Child Left Behind law, a statute of 670 pages, could be a 5 page statute authorizing the Dept of Education to set national standards for testing. For the reasons stated by Diane Ravitch and others in a NewTalk discussion on testing (available on this site), most of the coercive aspects of that law have proved counterproductive. 2. Civil service systems have become hidebound self-protection systems, driving away good people from public service and severing the chain of accountability that is vital in a democracy. Lets make a new deal with public employees, with safety nets but not a steel cocoon.
Just think of all the laws and rules that have outlived their usefulness. This could be fun. And perhaps restore the conditions needed for officials to make choices necessary to make government work. We could liberate some officials to start acting like CEOs.
Posted June 17, 2008, 6:03pm
To answer Mayor Bloomberg's question, here are a few of the kinds of things we ought to be hearing from the presidential candidates, if they are serious about government performance:
To heighten accountability for performance:
- Reinvigorate performance measurement throughout the federal government.
- Budget for results.
- Create a Performance Management system (which will require that we complete civil service reform) with regular performance reviews (a la Citistat), real rewards, and consequences for performance.
- Create an independent institution to publish "Consumer Reports" on the public sector.
- Continue but streamline Bush's managed competition initiative.
To improve customer service:
- Revive Clinton and Gore's requirement that agencies that serve the public develop customer service standards, but this time publicize them and require redress to the customer when the agency fails to meet its standards.
To empower managers and employers:
- Revive Clinton and Gore's successful Performance-Based Organization initiative: create 100 PBOs this time.
- De-layer federal management and reduce the number of political appointees.
- Eliminate half of all internal government rules and regulations (red tape).
- Empower Reinvention Laboratories and protect & support the innovators.
- Campaign finance reform using public financing.
- A genuine health care cost control strategy—because if we don't have one, everything else we do will be overrun by health care costs.
Posted June 17, 2008, 6:13pm
Mayor Bloomberg’s formulation is dead on: We need a president who neither clings stubbornly to his ideological worldview nor who expects to find a golden policy mean between the ideological poles of the parties, but instead seeks innovative ways of reformulating problems and solutions in ways that cut across existing divisions.
In the current political environment, it is difficult for presidential candidates to be explicit about the content of such ideas. As voters, the best we are likely to get is some hint of whether a candidate sees this as a critical responsibility of the president, and then clearer signs after the election in the transition and early days of governing.
Posted June 17, 2008, 6:50pm
This has been an interesting dialogue so far, but too general for my taste. It is easy to “dis” the system today, with its myriad problems. But I don’t see anyone jealous of other nations, and I do see several people online like Mayor Bloomberg, David Walker and others who have selflessly gotten inside the system to fix it. The excessive partisanship, as well as the lack of vision and accountability, worry me greatly, but I don’t see fundamental reforms advancing such as: 1) curbing gerrymandering, 2) better quality candidates, or 3) as some have mentioned already, campaign finance reform. If we can get a consensus on diagnosis, perhaps we can work on a specific reform together.
Politics is a game of intensity, not numbers, and this looks like a pretty focused group to me. Thanks for listening to one jet-lagged congressman.
Posted June 17, 2008, 11:51pm
Fixing government is not an abstract problem—even in the difficult arena of health care, there are solutions that both enhance care and cut costs.
Consider first David Osborne's cautionary point that we are hurtling toward a fiscal train wreck. Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and the federal debt is expected to consume the entire federal budget in 15 years (when many Baby Boomers will be over the age of 70.)
Let's narrow the focus to Medicare. In one recent year, nearly 30 percent of Medicare spending was used to provide care for beneficiaries in the last year of their lives, much of it hospital inpatient services.
There are alternatives, however, to expensive institution-based end-of-life care: home and community-based services. Not only are these alternatives a cost-effective way to provide this care but they enhance personal autonomy and allow recipients the immeasurable benefit of being in their homes surrounded by friends and family. See GAO 08-66, December 2007.
Florida has experience with an aged population. Home health agencies were freed in 2004 from the necessity of obtaining an expensive and time-consuming Certificate of Need from the state prior to operating. The de-regulation appears today to have been successful. Hospices are now allowed to be for-profit corporations. The number of hospice applications and approvals are increasing.
Problems have solutions. Innovation is not only technological—it can be policy-based.
Day Two of Discussion
Posted June 18, 2008, 2:32am
I am joining this fascinating conversation from Sweden.
First, if there were one "magic bullet" to improve government performance—of course, there's not any magic bullet, but we need to make choices about where to concentrate reform effort—it would be to institutionalize and strengthen systems for performance measurement and management, where possible around results-oriented measures (health, crime, accident rates, environmental quality) in government. These kinds of performance measures are government's counterpart to the profit measure as a performance measure for firms. Used properly—and above all managed to by organizational leaders—performance measurement can motivate employees to try harder, foster focus on mission results, and encourage learning by providing feedback over time and across organizational units or jurisdictions. The success of the COMPSTAT performance measurement system in reducing crime in New York, the performance-measurement efforts of Mayor Bloomberg (and other mayors such as Martin O'Malley), and some of the highway-safety advances based on use of performance data by the Federal Highway Administration all testify to the potential value of this approach. I have recently completed research on the dramatic performance improvements in emergency room wait times in England following an aggressive performance target effort in this area. We have made progress in this area, both federally and locally, since 1992, but the next administration needs to commit to continuing and expanding focus on such efforts.
Posted June 18, 2008, 4:49am
We seem to focus intensely on the supply side of good government—how can we change the management processes, the civil service system, the partisanship of executives and legislators, etc.—but we invest much less out-of-the-box thinking about engaging the demand side of the equation. Our research shows that the American people think of government as "the" governement, not "our" government. The disconnect is palpable, so how can "government of, by and for the people" be recreated in today's post-deToqueville society? How can people play a role in shaping public priorities, other than voting?
I am late joining this discussion, because we held a real town hall meeting on health care yesterday in San Francisco—the third in a cross country series. Each town hall brings government, business and civic leaders to a forum, underpinned by local and national survey research, to listen to the concerns and priorities of the people in their communities. The local media plays a partnership role by publicizing the event and airing the discussions in local broadcasts. This may not be the perfect format, but we find that people really want to be heard and leaders are invigorated by the opportunity to connect to the public's agenda and to brainstorm about collaborative solutions. Partisanship is seldom overt—as rivals focus more on problem solving than blaming each other. What other ways can we interact and build ownership of innovative solutions to tough, complex challenges?
Posted June 18, 2008, 9:32am
Our nation is at a critical crossroads. Our next president must have the courage to state the facts, speak the truth and provide strong leadership in at least two areas. First, we must begin to address a number of serious sustainability challenges that threaten our collective future (e.g., fiscal policy, entitlement programs, health care, taxes, education, energy, environment, immigration, infrastructure, foreign relations). Second, we must transform what the federal government does and how it does business. That will require courage, strong communication skills, an “A-team” of players in all key positions, and employment of a sensible, results oriented and bi-partisan approach to key policy issues. Our clock is ticking and time is not currently working in our favor. The good news is, we are Americans, and anything is possible once we “wake-up” and get serious.
Posted June 18, 2008, 10:06am
David Walker very usefully notes the two-level game we must play to govern effectively. The first involves improving conditions for responsible national policymaking, the second for enhancing the performance of governmental entities. Presidential leadership, courageous and politically skillful, is a necessary but not sufficient condition for addressing the major policy challenges David identifies.
The essential nitty-gritty efforts to improve performance is not the stuff that will grab voters’ attention in the campaign but can and must be pursued after the election. Both require backing off the rigid ideological thinking of recent years and recreating a market among high public officials for honest policy analysis.
Posted June 18, 2008, 10:11am
The last few comments have turned the discussion toward:
- the imperative for changing how government works
- the need to adopt basic management tools, and
- the importance of bringing the public into these choices.
Doing these things involves a dramatic shift in how government works today. Maybe it would be useful if we each state basic principles to guide such changes. Here are mine:
- Somehow rekindle the vocabulary of trade-offs. The society is doomed if every group pounds the table for its entitlements. This seems to be part of what Patricia is doing in her town hall meetings.
- Revive accountability by overhauling civil service. There's a hidden benefit here—making much of the bureaucracy unnecessary. There's no need for bureaucracy telling people how to do their jobs if they can be accountable.
- Rewrite regulation to focus on goals, not detailed controls.
- Radically de-centralize social services so that communities feel responsibility and see the need for constant trade-offs.
Anyone else willing to step in here?
Posted June 18, 2008, 10:52am
I agree with Tom Mann's characterization of the double track. Actually, in some sense the "management" track may be less hard than the "political" track. The main reason I say this is that the most-intractable political problems, involving sacrifices people must make now to protect the future, are very hard to sell to people. It's easy to blame institutions. But in this area we have met the enemy, and he is us.
Posted June 18, 2008, 11:00am
About management: the generational change in the government workforce, which is imminent, large and inevitable, will be transformational. Millenials operate very differently from us baby boomers. Networked problem solving, collaborative leadership and finding whatever works are natural acts and the technological enablers are part of the DNA of the shapers of our future. We know them well because some of them are our children. They want to make a difference and they will. One of our recent surveys showed that most (60%) say they have never been asked to consider government service. Most also say they would seriously consider it if asked by 1) their parents, 2) the next president, or 3) their teachers or professors. What an opportunity to fix government! How can we encourage and accelerate this transition?
Posted June 18, 2008, 11:12am
Appropos of the comments by Steve Kelman and Tomm Mann, I just came across the following quotation from Edmund Burke: "Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites..."
Posted June 18, 2008, 12:43pm
I want to pick up on Philip Howard's comment about rekindling "the vocabulary of trade-offs." When we budget in government, we are making decisions about trade-offs: Given our limited resources, what programs will give us the most bang for the buck? However, traditional budget systems at all levels of government obscure these choices, and the way Congress handles budgeting makes it impossible for most Americans to understand the fundamental choices and trade-offs at issue. The Congressional budget process is broken.
A new president should start over. We have developed an approach, which we call Budgeting for Outcomes, that organizes the budget not by departments but by results. Under each desired outcome (better health, better education, a better environment, etc.), program options are ranked from most cost-effective to least. A dollar amount is attached to each result, and executives "buy" from the top of the list down. When the money runs out, they draw a line and recommend no funding for items below the line. Roughly 20 jurisdictions have adopted it (states, cities, counties, school districts).
This approach forces the trade-offs into public view. When interest groups demand that their program be funded, legislators ask them: "OK, if we move your program up, what program shall we move down, so we can afford it? And why do you believe your program will contribute more toward the desired result than the one you want to move down?"
A president could prepare the federal budget this way. I despair of Congress ever being willing to consider such a budget. But just be provoking debate about how we should make the tough budget decisions we face, a president would be making a big contribution.
Posted June 18, 2008, 1:36pm
David, the congressional budget process is no more broken than the executive budget process. For years, by imposing discretionary spending caps and pay/go requirements, Congress did precisely what you ask it to. No surprise that spending was contained and budget deficits turned into surpluses. Over the last seven years, with tax cuts and Medicare drug benefits exempted from pay/go and discretionary spending no longer subject to limits, we have returned to a world of high spending and big deficits. This was led by a president and approved by an acquiescent Congress controlled by his own party. These high politics/ideological considerations overwhelm your laudatory process reform.
Posted June 18, 2008, 3:17pm
Yes, I understand that the Bush administration and the Republican Congress suspended pay-as-you-go for political and ideological reasons. It's up to the next president to return us to sound fiscal policies and processes. And if in that process he wants to highlight the key trade-offs that face us, there are budget practices that can help him do so.
Posted June 18, 2008, 5:00pm
I agree with the comments above that there are systematic problems in the way Congress assigns priorities to what is or is not funded by federal dollars. This, in turn, can lead to sub-optimal allocation of resources for government agencies. I think this flows from the priorities members of Congress may have in mind, which may not necessarily be the most effective use of public money for the public interest.
As I said earlier, I believe decoupling the campaign money members of Congress are necessarily required to raise on an ongoing basis from the legislative process would create an environment on Capitol Hill that is more conducive to policy making that puts the needs of the general public ahead of individuals or groups that have specific needs. I think the public becomes wary of government when it sees give-aways to these “special interests,” which contributes to poor voter turnout and a general lowering of standards for what the government, down to the local level, should be doing.
Posted June 18, 2008, 6:51pm
Bob Edgar is correct. I have previously been opposed to public funding of congressional campaigns, but the current system is really unsavory and needs to be changed dramatically.
Even though Pac money comes from individuals (and is then bundled), it still smacks of corporate influence-buying. The current system makes everyone look bad and undermines the legitimacy of our democracy and makes our elected representatives look like beggars.
Posted June 18, 2008, 7:15pm
While I am a longtime supporter of full public financing, I am increasingly skeptical it can be achieved legislatively or implemented effectively. The crown jewel of public financing—the presidential system—is at best on life support. Constitutional protection of independent spending by political parties and groups render the goal of controlling overall spending virtually impossible. McCain-Feingold had very limited objectives and succeeded in its major one—eliminating party soft money that encouraged elected and party officials to extort large contributions from corporations and wealthy individuals—but it doesn’t even address the larger set of problems. The recent surge of small donations via the Internet in the presidential election is a very positive development. I hope we can find ways of encouraging its spread to other levels of elective office. Maintaining the contribution limits of FECA and BCRA contributes to that end.
Posted June 18, 2008, 9:45pm
Yes, there needs to be further campaign finance, redistricting and other political reforms. However, we also need a capable, credible and bipartisan commission to address the need for statutory budget controls, comprehensive Social Security reform, and round one of comprehensive tax and health care reform. Finally, we also need a new "Grace type" commission that has a broader charter, a longer life span, and a means and mechanism within the government to help ensure effective implementation and ongoing monitoring of worthwhile recommendations on the organization and operations of the federal government.
Posted June 18, 2008, 9:53pm
Maybe I am too simple-minded, but how about this for an agenda to fix federal government?
- Make government use accrual accounting like every other sizeable business, non-profit, and government in America. If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. If you won’t measure it, you don’t deserve to manage it. The only audited financial statements for America can be found in the Financial Report of the U.S. Government issued by the U.S. Treasury, but few people have seen them because they are issued on Christmas Eve without a press release. You get your favorite companies’ financials, why not your favorite country’s?
- Report the retirement and health liabilities of federal employees on the federal balance sheet. Failure to do so in the private sector is a criminal offense.
- Medicare and Social Security benefits should “vest” when employees have paid in 10 years of payroll taxes, unlike today’s practice of only counting the benefit the month we have to write the check.
- Report the amount of employer sponsored health benefits on your W-2 Form. Otherwise you have no idea what your health insurance costs.
- Support the Wyden-Bennett Healthy Americans Act. It has more Democratic and Republican cosponsors than any health reform bill in history.
Posted June 18, 2008, 10:06pm
Jim Cooper has rolled up his sleeves and given us concrete steps for action.
- The steps toward budget transparency should at least increase the embarrassment factor, although I agree with David Walker that the shame of how deficits will affect our children has to be taken to the public.
- The Wyden-Bennett bill is an artful compromise to get universal coverage—requiring those who are able to buy insurance, while putting health care choices into private hands.
But a number of us have also addressed the systemic problems in managing government. As one of the public comments notes, this is a discussion about fixing government so it can effectively govern. Maybe others can be concrete about these issues as well.
Posted June 18, 2008, 10:27pm
With regard to Congressman Cooper's comments, the federal government already uses accrual accounting, but it uses a cash-based budget process. At the same time, the government should show the bonds in the Social Security, Medicare and other "trust funds" as a liability on the "balance sheet". We also need a new Statement of Fiscal Sustainability and Inter-generational Equity. In addition, civilian and military pension and retiree health liabilities are already on the federal balance sheet. Social Security benefits are already earned after 40 quarters (10 years) of credits. I agree with disclosing the cost of employer provided and paid health care insurance costs on W-2s; however, progressive employers already disclose these costs as part of annual employee benefits statements. Finally, I haven't studied the Wyden-Bennett bill enough to comment on it.
Posted June 19, 2008, 2:36am
I agree with Philip and others that the orientation in government towards preventing abuses and relative lack of attention to achieving results is an ongoing challenge. Without wishing to be or sound partisan, the "reinventing government" efforts under Al Gore represented a dramatic move away from a philosophy of tying the government in knots as a strategy to prevent abuse, at the expense of allowing achievement or excellence. Unfortunately, that philosophy seems to have been lost, in both parties, now, as we move backward toward more internal rules, more controls, and more discouragement doled out to the career government workforce. The campaign against the government credit card, where isolated examples of abuse (which should be dealt with straightforwardly by sending perpetrators to jail) are being used to attack a program that has produced billions in administrative cost savings and allowed organizations quick access to everything they need to do their jobs (before the credit card, getting a new computer on somebody's desk generally took months). Our approach to managing government is analogous to shutting down highways because there are drunk drivers out there.
Posted June 19, 2008, 10:02am
I want to weigh in in support of Dave Walker's comment that we need a new "Grace type" commission to improve the operations of the federal government. And I want to add an important caveat: it should be "owned" as much by Congress as by the President. President Clinton had an opportunity to do this in 1993: six senators on the Governmental Affairs Committee had bills in for a government reform commission, appointed by the President and including members of both parties and both houses. I urged Clinton to go this route, but in the flush of his inauguration I don't think he wanted to share credit with Congress. For whatever reason, he created the National Performance Review as an administration initiative only. We did yeoman's work, but with the exception of procurement reform (where Sen. John Glenn already had a bill in and integrated our recommendations into it), Congress largely yawned. They passed our proposed workforce downsizing without passing the reforms we said were necessary to make it succeed; in other words, they eliminated the jobs but not the work.
My point is simple: Congress will not take management reform seriously unless leaders in Congress feel ownership of the recommendations. This time, let's do it right.
Posted June 19, 2008, 10:12am
I like David Walker's suggestion of a commission to look at overhauling how government functions. There's a history of these, to some good effect—for example, the Brownlow Commission in 1937 and the Hoover Commission in the 1950s.
What's needed is not tinkering but a basic shift in approach, as Steve Kelman discusses. Perhaps the operative concept is Responsibility—Individual Responsibility. This encompasses Mayor Bloomberg's idea of the CEO, Mayor Franklin's idea that public servants need the authority to do their jobs, and the suggestion of various of us to overhaul civil service.
Here's a quote from the Brownlow Commission:
"Government is a human institution....It is human throughout; it rests not only on formal arrangements...but even more upon attitudes....It is certainly not a machine....What we want is not a streamlined, chromium-trimmed government that looks well in the advertisement, but one that will actually deliver the goods in practice."
Posted June 19, 2008, 10:22am
I agree with David Osborne that the new “Grace-type Commission” should be “owned” by both the Congress and the President. Our clock is ticking, the time for action is now!
Posted June 19, 2008, 10:36am
Jim Cooper raises the issue of health care reform. I have yet to see any federal proposal that is serious about cost control, and without cost control, universal health care will bankrupt us. (Medicare and Medicaid alone will already bankrupt us.) I believe there are five strategies that hold the promise of making a significant dent in the 10 percent annual inflation rate we've endured in health care for the last 50 years:
1.) A massive effort to maintain health by encouraging healthy behavior (re. diet, exercise, alcohol and drug use, safe sex, etc.).
2.) Replacing our fee-for-service payment system with managed competition between integrated, managed care systems that charge annual per-patient fees and pay providers fixed rates for each cycle of care for a medical condition (e.g. a healthy pregnancy, treatment of a particular cancer, two years of treatment for diabetes, etc.).
3.) Statewide, interoperable electronic health records systems used by all providers.
4.) New policies to encourage rational end-of-life care, such as a requirement that anyone with insurance establish a living will or accept a "default" living will established by the state.
5.) A new system of health courts, modeled on the workers' compensation system, to contain medical malpractice costs.
If we can't fix this, we can't fix government, because health care will soon (10-15 years) devour half of our federal and state budgets.
Posted June 19, 2008, 10:57am
I would make the plea that the phrase "Grace-like Commission" not be used. The Grace Commission was a fiasco due to incredibly sloppy research, ideological biases, and a refusal to engage the government workforce. Actually, GAO issued a strong critique of the Grace Commission recommendations at the time.
Posted June 19, 2008, 11:03am
I am glad that the discussion has turned to the Congress. It is basic civics: Congress makes the laws that the
Executive Branch carries out, and with its power over the purse, it is most responsible under the Constitution.
for the general direction of the country. I have often heard federal employees state "budget drives policy" as they decry the lack of resources to accomplish the goals of specific programs.
But is Congress up to the task? It has ceded much of its powers to administrative agencies that have resorted
to extraordinarily complex regulatory schemes in an attempt to control outcomes. (Just think IRS.) Or ask yourself where might we be today had Congress insisted on exercising its power to declare war under the War Power conferred by the Constitution exclusively on the Congress instead of delegating it to the President?
Posted June 19, 2008, 11:05am
Jim Cooper is right, our current health care “system” will bankrupt us absent reform. We need to take steps now to control cost growth. The last thing we should do is expand coverage in an already broken system and dig our fiscal hole deeper. We also need to engage in a national public discussion regarding what the key elements of comprehensive health care reform should be so we can analyze all proposals based on such key elements. I would suggest four possible high level principles. First, achieve universal coverage for basic and essential heath care that is both affordable and sustainable over time. Second, impose an overall budget and/or related stabilizers for federal health care costs. Third, develop and implement a set of national, evidence-based standards for the practice of medicine and the use of prescription drugs. Finally, take steps to increase personal responsibility and accountability for our own health and wellness.
Posted June 19, 2008, 11:12am
[Re: Steve's comment:] I am well aware of the GAO’s related work. We need to focus on substance not names. In my view, we need a Commission that deals with the organization and operations of government that has a broader mandate, a longer lifespan, and a more effective implementation and monitoring mechanism than the Grace Commission.
Posted June 19, 2008, 11:57am
I agree that fixing health care will go a long way toward fixing government. We should evaluate the candidate's proposals based on a scorecard that captures the essence of our survey work and public town hall meetings across the country on health care (consistent with what has been suggested by David Walker, Jim Cooper and others
1. cost containment
2. universal coverage for basic services
3. improvements in quality and safety
Portability is added because the public sees this as a priority (along with the other 3) and tying workers to their employers so they can keep their health plans is an impediment to consumer driven health care, mobility and productivity.
There are a number of ways to achieve these goals, and at this time, neither of the candidate's proposals would do so. The biggest challenges to acheiving health care reform is achieving political consensus on a comprehensive proposal that meets these 4 criteria, with cost containment at the top of the list.
Posted June 19, 2008, 12:36pm
I join the chorus for getting Congress involved—particularly when the same party controls both the White House and the Congress, there is a deafening silence on so many issues from Capitol Hill. It is not so much the delegation referred to in an earlier comment, but the acts of omission—standing still in the face of a need for oversight,etc.
Returning to Philip's challenge last night about concrete suggestions for better managing the government, I offer three possible routes:
1. Select people to head the agencies who not only accept the premise that part of their job is to manage, but are able to do it. The programs that are in place should be run efficiently and effectively, yet too often, the office of presidential personnel looks to other criteria—e.g., loyalty—for selection, and getting competent people in place takes a poor third or fourth place. With a new administration, we have an opportunity to change that.
2. Empower senior civil servants in the management of government—that was what drove much of the reinventing government under Gore, as Steve Kelman and David Osborne have said; and
3. More transparency—a lot of work has gone into developing performance measures. The raw data are informative about the management of government programs—regrettably, the data are lost by the simple (or simplistic) grading of agencies—with many receiving poor marks because "results not shown" when data gathering has been difficult because of lack of funding.
Posted June 19, 2008, 2:21pm
I’m glad to join the debate today. Here are five suggestions:
We all know money is at the root of our problem with government. The answer to this problem is public financing of elections for House and Senate.
Second, partisan state legislature draws congressional district lines that leave Congress with only about 50 seats of 435 that are competitive. The remaining 385 are often 60-40 Republican or Democrat. Because the general election is certain, the candidate plays to the extremes of the party to avoid a primary as opposed to working in the center to deal with the issues that most affect people’s lives such as health care, pensions, education. The answer to this problem is to take the line-drawing responsibility away from the state legislature and give it to a citizen commission.
Only about 50% of the eligible voters actually vote in congressional elections. The reason most give for not voting is the demands of their work. The answer here is to move election day from Tuesday (tell me why is it on Tuesday?) to the weekend. Two days of voting is not too much for the world’s greatest democracy. Raising turnout from 50 to 80% would be the biggest change in our politics since women got the right to vote.
We know that government doesn’t function properly. Bureaucracy wastes money and distorts purposes. Here we need to make bureaucrats accountable and bureaucracies less burdened by work rules that impede efficiency.
Finally, a transparent federal budget that is online and keyword accessible so that average citizens can see how much money was spent on children’s health or military bases or bridges. The biggest number could then be linked with the votes and the debates on the particular subject that preceded its enactment. Citizens would then have the info they need to hold elected representatives accountable.
Posted June 19, 2008, 2:47pm
I agree with all five of Bill Bradley's comments.
Posted June 19, 2008, 3:12pm
I’ll add a sixth idea to Senator Bradley’s interesting list by picking up on Patricia’s earlier comments about how to bring highly talented people into government: merit hiring at all levels of government. When a president (or mayor or governor) invites the “best and brightest” to apply for jobs, that should be an invitation to both Democrats and Republicans. If the next president is going to rise above the incessant fighting and sniping between the two parties, one natural place to begin would be by selecting a cabinet and staff that includes members of the other party. Part of the cause of Washington’s polarization and gridlock is our own low expectations of how elected officials conduct business. If we expect merit hiring in government agencies, shouldn’t we expect it in the White House and Congress?
Posted June 19, 2008, 3:27pm
The best and the brightest do not belong to a single political party. In fact, some of the best and brightest persons are political independents. Don't forget, a growing plurality of Americans now consider themselves to be political independents, and I'm one of them.
Posted June 19, 2008, 3:48pm
I applaud the recent comments urging merit appointments to government and pointing out that no single party has a monopoly on the best and brightest. We desperately need less ideologically driven appointments to government and policy analysis. At the same time, we need to acknowledge that the parties have taken on more philosophical coherence in recent years and that it is natural for presidents, governors and mayors to select their highest-ranking officials who broadly share their philosophical outlook. But too often that legitimate perspective deteriorates into an extreme form of ideological and partisan screening that devalues merit and honest analysis and administration.
David, most people who claim to be independents when pressed acknowledge being closer to one party or the other. And those leaning independents are as partisan in their views and behavior as those who identify as Democrats or Republicans. The number of pure independents is less than 10% of the electorate. The fact is, almost all American voters view the political world through partisan lenses and act accordingly. Fixing American government will require working with parties and not around them.
Posted June 19, 2008, 4:00pm
To David's point, political parties may rank lower even than lawyers in public esteem. Part of the appeal of both Obama and McCain is their independence. The change theme seems to provide an opportunity for real reform
It's almost time to conclude our virtual forum—5 pm is when we turn into real people again. We're open to any ideas on how to wrap up, but one is for each of you to provide a summary of your first priorities—no more than three, please—if the new president gave you the task of fixing government.
Posted June 19, 2008, 4:24pm
Hear, hear to those points. In fact, Joe Klein raises the notion of a meaningfully bipartisan Obama cabinet in the current issue of Time. I endorse the idea no matter who wins the election and would specifically recommend that Sec. Gates remain in his post. I’ve recently had the opportunity to study the ways our national security institutions (Defense, State, intelligence agencies) work internally and with each other to keep America secure. It should come as no surprise that our biggest and best-funded bureaucracies inevitably gravitate toward status quo, rigidity and territorialism. So far Gates has demonstrated a willingness to drive institutional changes and the skill to make them without alienating too much of the institution. In an era of calcified government, surely management and leadership abilities must trump ideology. I think the next generation—and the rising number of independent thinkers like Dave Walker—get that.
Posted June 19, 2008, 5:59pm
The next President can take big steps to fix government:
1.Excellent people managing for results.Appoint excellent managers to run critical agencies and programs, ask talented people to serve in government, fix the hiring process and spread a culture of responsiveness and results.
2. Show that bipartisan, collaborative, effective reform is possible.Make health care reform a reality with a bipartisan approach that follows the principles discussed earlier and builds ownership each step of the way.
3. Embrace transparency, collaboration and accountability for results.Be clear about a few key priorities, reach out for ideas and support, publicly track progress, be willing to change course if necessary, give credit to others, and hold yourself, your team and your partners accountable for results.
Thanks for the opportunity to join in this fascinating discussion.
Posted June 19, 2008, 6:00pm
Thank you all again for participating, and also for the public comments.
What I take from the discussion is a longing to run government differently. Some focused on the partisanship and special interest influence, others on the urgent unmet demands, especially in health care. The weight of concern seemed to be on making government better able to meet our common goals.
If I were asked how to tackle this problem by the new president, I would recommend:
1) a special 5-year commission to recommend overhauls that would enable government to be responsive to public needs and accountable for its performance;
2) experiment with programs to permit citizen involvement in public programs, with a focus on the tradeoffs inherent in all public choices. Tradeoffs must become part of our public vocabulary;
3) organize a spring cleaning of outdated statutes and regulations, to better align law with current needs.Thank you all again. What a fabulous group! And while Mayor Bloomberg didn't post while in his pajamas, many of you did. Your passion for making government better extends into the wee hours.
Next week's forum is on creating a new model of chronic care.