Government Through the Crisis

Public officials need to strike the right balance between dealing with the daily emergencies and leading structural improvements in how government delivers essential services.
by | May 19, 2010

BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico

Government deals with big, unexpected problems. Floods in Nashville, a massive oil spill off the coast of Louisiana and, in Europe, a massive volcano that paralyzed travel and raised myriad public health concerns.

Such unanticipated crises can't be ignored. Public officials don't have the luxury of not responding.

Government also deals with big, slow-moving problems. The budget crunch facing so many state and local governments, for example, has been brewing for a long time. Excessive pension costs, deferred maintenance on infrastructure and unsustainable spending have created a structural imbalance and big budget gaps for many state and local governments. Dealing with such crises are important, too, and require a sustained, focused effort on driving cost savings.

At least until a water main bursts, as it did outside of Boston recently, leaving nearly two million people without drinking water.

The tension between urgent crisis management and the need to drive long-term systemic improvements is part of the territory in the public sector. Moreover, given the short-term status of elected officials, who generally go before voters every two to four years, finding the capacity to deal with an issue with a 10- or 20-year event horizon can be a challenge.

Public officials need to strike the right balance between dealing with the daily emergencies and leading structural improvements in how government delivers essential services. Easy to say, hard to accomplish. I should know. One day after being introduced as the next deputy mayor of New York City for operations, an undetonated car bomb was discovered in Times Square.

Working in government means dealing with both immediate problems and the long-term ones -- no excuses. But the public-sector environment, and the media scrutiny that goes with it, tends to tilt the playing field in the direction of management by crisis. Professor James Q. Wilson once referred to government as "a coping institution." That's true, but government has to be a planning and improving institution as well.

The truth is the crisis du jour sometimes merits our immediate, undivided attention, as in the cases cited above. But sometimes the latest kerfluffle generating a slew of "urgent" phone calls is more of a tempest in a teapot, a distraction that takes us away from more important but less pressing matters. The media in general tends to treat the "phony" emergency with the same intensity as the real ones -- remember the saturation coverage of the White House party crashers?

State and local governments face an enduring mismatch between revenues and expenses. Righting this imbalance, by growing the economy and streamlining public-service delivery, is a central role of public leaders. This problem is important, even if it doesn't present itself with the urgency of some other issues.

In my role as professor of government at Harvard Kennedy School, I've been focused on finding and sharing public-sector practices that deliver better, faster, cheaper government. Now I'll be assisting Mayor Michael Bloomberg, striving to put many similar ideas into practice to deliver public value. I've gone from being a producer of streamlining ideas to a consumer.

This Better, Faster, Cheaper blog on Governing.com affords me the chance to share my thoughts on driving public-sector efficiency. It also provides the Governing audience a chance to share their experiences with the Better, Faster, Cheaper team of authors, as well as with each other. If you have an idea or success story to share, I encourage you to add your voice to the conversation in the comment section below. Managing in the face of crisis is aided by the collective wisdom of those engaged in the effort to deliver public value.

Adding your comment below isn't urgent -- but it is important.

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