A review of The Warping of Government Work, by John D. Donahue
A Government Ill Executed: The Decline of the Federal Service and How to Reverse It, by Paul C. Light


The political landscape in Washington has plainly been profoundly altered by our recent elections. Although it is too early to tell what President Obama's priorities are going to be or how they will align with the preferences of the newly strengthened Democratic majority in the Congress, many things may be possible now in our politics that have not been possible for some time. One of those things is reform of the federal government. Like John F. Kennedy before him, Obama seems to have tapped into a vein of idealism in the American people that could lead to an enthusiasm for government service not seen since the Vietnam War and Watergate. The problem is that government service has over the years become ever more unpleasant and unrewarding.

Especially at a time when business as well as play in America are increasingly shaped by the egalitarianism and self-display of the global electronic environment, the federal government remains a dinosaur of hierarchy, regimentation, routine, and anonymity. Individual achievement is difficult to measure and reward. At the same time, even innocent missteps can land bureaucrats in the newspapers or the courts, wrecking careers and bank balances (consider the case of Scooter Libby). On top of all that, federal salary scales have not kept up with the private sector, particularly in certain key areas. As a result of all these factors, those attracted to federal service are no longer necessarily our best and brightest. Rather, as John D. Donahue argues in a data-filled but readable brief study, The Warping of Government Work, federal employment tends to be the preferred option of those seeking what he calls "safe harbor" in government from the rigors of the real economy, with predictably baleful effects on the government's ability to perform its mandated missions.

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Donahue, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and a former official in the Clinton Administration, takes as his theme the increasing divergence in recent decades between public sector (including state and local government) and private sector employment. In his view, the massive factor behind this divergence is the gradual collapse of the "middle class economy" and the growth of the enormous inequalities in income that we see in the American workforce today. Donahue spends little time bemoaning this development or expecting it to be remedied by government itself, and his bottom line will surprise some. "Government work offers a haven from the roiling turbulence of today's economy for many millions of workers," he writes. "It is eminently understandable that these Americans cherish and cling to a separate working world that still lets them earn a middle-class living. The problem, of course, is that this is not what government is for."

The real economy's distorting effect on government work is twofold. Toward the lower end of the pay scale, due largely to the growing power of public sector unions, workers are generally more secure and better paid than in comparable jobs in the private sector, yet have few incentives to excel—or fear dismissal. At the same time, because salaries for top managers and professionals are artificially suppressed by being linked closely to congressional pay, they discourage retention of the most accomplished and ambitious. (With a few exceptions, executive branch salaries are capped at around $155,000, although annual performance bonuses are also routinely given.) Donahue argues that dysfunctional government performance can be overcome only by eliminating these distortions. He would enhance the reward structure of the top echelons of government and attack the perquisites of ordinary workers enjoying government's "safe harbor."

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In A Government Ill Executed: The decline of Federal Service and How to Reverse It, Paul C. Light, a political scientist who has written widely on public administration in the United States, shares Donahue's assessment of the American government's declining administrative competence. Focusing on the federal bureaucracy, he offers a litany of recent cases illustrating his point:

taxpayer abuse by the Internal Revenue Service, security breaches at the nation's nuclear laboratories, missing laptops at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters, breakdowns in policing everything from toys to cattle, the sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina, miscalculations about the war in Iraq, a cascade of wasteful government contracts, continued struggles to unite the nation's intelligence services, agonizing backlogs at the Social Security Administration and the Passport Bureau, near misses on airport runways, staff shortages across the government, porous borders, mistakes on airline passenger screening lines, the subprime mortgage meltdown, destruction of the CIA interrogation tapes, and negligent medical care of veterans.

One might complain that Light seems in several instances to confuse policy and administrative failures, and that he doesn't establish a meaningful standard of comparison. Are our porous borders a reflection merely of administrative shortcomings, or do they point to indecision and lack of will at the policy and political level? Does the United States do worse than other countries, or is it merely that such lapses are better reported in our more transparent society? Were the shuttle crashes worse than earlier disasters in the space program?

Still, the cumulative weight of such examples is telling. There is something new and unsettling about the sheer mindlessness of some of these failures. And Light doesn't even mention the recent series of inexplicable glitches in the Air Force's handling of its nuclear weapons.

What is responsible for such incompetence? Disappointingly, he fails to analyze this question, and instead simply describes a number of discrete factors that seem to contribute in some way or other to the overall problem. These include: a mismatch between what we ask of government and the resources we (that is, the Congress) are willing to provide, proliferation of layers of bureaucracy and dilution of clarity of command, the cumbersome process for making political appointments, failure to attract the nation's best and brightest to government service, misdirected and disruptive reform efforts, and a growing reliance on contractors and grantees to perform governmental tasks. While no one would deny the pathologies Light identifies, they hardly bear the weight of his broad argument that the federal government's "execution" is fundamentally flawed. It is also odd that the latter two factors are seen in such a negative light, when in fact they may contribute part of the solution.

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Both of these books are useful, but like much of the literature on American public administration, their focus is too narrow. Above all, they are insufficiently attentive to the larger political, socio-cultural, and conceptual context that shapes American bureaucratic behavior. What's more, they paint with a broad brush that blurs important differences between government agencies—particularly the domestic and national security agencies—and therefore also fails to pinpoint the fundamental problem of interagency coordination. The worst failures in government performance occur at the intersection of competing organizational responsibilities. Hurricane Katrina is a classic example.

The political dimension of the federal bureaucracy's behavior has been widely ignored in the academy for obvious reasons: at its core is the relationship between the bureaucracy and the Democratic Party. Federal workers (and their counterparts in state and local governments) have become since the New Deal an important Democratic constituency, and the public unions that protect them have now eclipsed private sector unions as a source of political and financial support for the party. This is the single most important factor that explains the sorry state of public education in the United States today.

Moreover, Democratic legislators have become fond of using their constituents in public service to advance an array of liberal social policies. It would be hard to overstate the pernicious effects at all levels of bureaucracy of the regulations—grown thick in recent decades—protecting job security and proscribing sexual harassment and discrimination on the bases of race and gender. Whatever the good intentions behind them, these regulations constitute a powerful tool in the hands of unscrupulous employees and a barrier to rational personnel management. In fairness, of course, it should be added that legislators of both parties routinely meddle in the day-to-day operations of the bureaucracy for the purposes of patronage, influence-mongering, and guerrilla warfare against the administration in power.

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Compounding these problems in the political sphere is the socio-cultural trajectory of the American elite since the 1970s. The key development here is the decline of public spiritedness and the ethos of public service in the political class since the Vietnam War, and the ongoing decay of American elite education—private as well as public—that is at once a cause and consequence of this. It is this factor, at least as much as the economic realities highlighted by Donahue, that explains why our best students continue to shun military service and find the idea of government service unthinkable. The decay of American elite education is a phenomenon that spans secondary, higher, and professional educational institutions. Quite apart from the unpatriotic ideology that pervades these institutions (as well as much of our popular culture), their ability to inculcate even the basic competencies of active citizenship can no longer be taken for granted. Who believes that today's public servants are more literate, informed, analytical, articulate, and morally serious than their counterparts of 30, 40, or 50 years ago?

In fact, it is increasingly clear that the private educational sector in the United States is no longer capable of preparing students adequately for public service. Just as some leading corporations in this country have created their own "universities" to train employees to an appropriate standard based on their real-world requirements, the government needs to consider a similar approach. At present, only the military is seriously concerned with higher education (as distinct from professional or technical training), in the form of its various service academies and war colleges. Perhaps new institutions are needed at the graduate level for the wider foreign policy and national security community. A strong argument can also be made for creating a new government-run undergraduate academy for public administration. The Obama Administration may move out smartly on this latter idea. Done the wrong way, of course, such institutions would serve only to reinforce bureaucratic mediocrity and incompetence.

Peeling back the next layer of the onion, there are both agency-specific bureaucratic cultures and generic ones rooted in complex ways in American history. What explains the FBI's long-standing inadequacies in conducting counterintelligence and counterterrorism operations? The easy, yet essentially correct, answer is that the agency's underlying culture is a law-enforcement one averse to strategic and proactive approaches. What explains NASA's space shuttle disasters? That the agency is driven by technological experimentation rather than a flight operations mentality. What explains the ineptitude of the Department of Homeland Security? On the one hand, it has failed to create a genuinely unified organization and organizational culture out of the many disparate agencies making it up. On the other, it suffers from the flawed concepts and operational codes governing much of what it has tried to do. The failure of DHS to counter political pressures against so-called racial or ethnic "profiling" of terrorists, for example, has contributed to the manifold absurdities we are all familiar with in airport security lines and elsewhere. Still another major failing is the department's susceptibility to political pressures to spread the homeland security dollar throughout every state, regardless of likely threats.

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Finally, a word about the structure of the American bureaucracy and the problem of interagency coordination. Important as personnel issues are, it is essential not to lose sight of the enduring influence of organizational factors on bureaucratic behavior. For reasons of history and constitutional structure, the American bureaucracy is decentralized and difficult to control. Agencies answer not only to the president but to Congress, or rather to separate committees of Congress jealous of their own prerogatives; and Congress's influence over agency structure and personnel policies is extensive—more so than many Americans probably imagine, given the popular image of our all-powerful president. All this tends to reinforce the executive agencies' autonomy and distinctive cultures. Though in theory presidents can command agencies to cooperate with one another, in practice it is quite otherwise: in general, presidents are reluctant to manage the bureaucracy directly given the frustrations and political costs involved.

In the national security area, a special mechanism exists—the National Security Council, created in 1947—to facilitate at the White House level coordination of the State and Defense Departments, the intelligence community, and other players. When this organization has functioned well, the government's performance has been markedly superior (the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam War fiascos were not unrelated to the downgrading of the NSC system during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations). The problem, however, is that the NSC is a mechanism for policy development rather than implementation or execution. The absence of a standing mechanism of the latter sort helps explain what went wrong in Iraq following the U.S. invasion in 2003. There are several efforts currently underway in Washington to address this problem; where the Obama Administration will come down on them remains to be seen.

Returning to the personnel issue, Light envisions a comprehensive program of "radical" reform spearheaded by a bipartisan national commission, but doesn't acknowledge that the real problem consists in achieving consensus among Democrats. Donahue doubts in effect that such consensus is possible, and looks in a different direction—toward a rebalancing of the relationship between government and the private sector. He entertains the idea that government could outsource functions to the private sector, to non-profits or even corporations with a public service conscience, but decides that accountability remains an insuperable stumbling block to any such move. His final suggestion is to use government more effectively to leverage private-sector talents and capabilities. In particular, he argues for reducing the barriers to occasional public service by those who intend to make careers in the private sector. Though he doesn't mention it, anyone doubting such a step's practicability should make a study of the personnel practices of the U.S. military—and intelligence community—in World War II.

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For Correspondence on this review, click here