The Taboo Subject of Effectiveness in Government

We need to overcome our disinclination to honestly examine the performance of our public-sector institutions.
February 16, 2015
By Richard Clay Wilson Jr.  |  Contributor
Retired city manager of Santa Cruz, Calif.

In the January issue of The Atlantic, James Fallows describes how the effectiveness of the U.S. military has become a taboo subject in the political arena. Given the vital importance of our military's performance, Fallows' article is important and disturbing.

Fallows writes that, in contrast to the military, the subject of effectiveness is readily admissible when the objects of attention are schools or other domestic government services. My own experience, however, is that there are powerful built-in barriers that work against discussing the effectiveness of government institutions regardless of service area. Let me explain.

Since retiring in 2010 after 38 years in local government, I have dedicated myself to promoting managerial values and practices in government. I am no novice, and knew full well that I would meet with skepticism and a measure of hostility in terms of management's worth in the public sector. What I didn't expect was a widespread disinclination to address the subject of institutional effectiveness at all.

The salient obstacle is what seems like a universal compulsion to consider effectiveness only through political lenses. When government's institutions do things we approve of, we credit politicians we like; when these institutions do things we disapprove of, we blame politicians we dislike.

When we do manage to look beyond politicians themselves, we look to the policies they have put in place and the political appointees they have selected for government's top jobs. In short, we contemplate institutional shortcomings as if there were only two possible causes: the directions given by politicians and the actions taken (or not taken) by their appointees.

Because voters are the only people who can replace political officeholders, the age-old response to institutional failures is to replace the highest-ranking political appointees. We've seen a lot of this recently at the federal level -- at the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Secret Service, to name a few -- and it happens in state and local governments with depressing regularity and predictability. No one seems to care if the actual problems at issue actually have anything to do with these political appointees.

So it is that we have unwittingly excused ourselves from examining the bureaucracies of government. We ignore the histories, practices, cultures and capabilities of government institutions. We ignore intergovernmental complexities that further constrain our leaders. Above all, we ignore the massive edifices of laws, regulations and rules that constrain everyone who works in government.

I have also encountered a second impediment to talking about institutional effectiveness, one that applies with particular force to the subject of management but also broadly to the subject of effectiveness: It is all but impossible to raise the subject of management in government without being labeled anti-union. In contemporary parlance, the very word "management" conjures up notions of cutting workers, slashing pay and benefits, heedlessly demanding more work from everyone, and contracting out government services. That management might be a force for good is unthinkable.

In sum, we are mightily disinclined to think about, talk about, study or attend to the performance of public-sector institutions as a subject in its own right. When we do endeavor to approach the subject, we feel obligated to first set forth our views about politics and about public-sector labor unions.

My view is that worthy institutions of government are indispensable to a decent society. If one believes this is true, it follows that somebody must be responsible for obtaining performance and value from them. It is imperative that we figure out who those somebodies might be and grant them the authority to achieve worthiness.

We ought to be able to set aside our views about politics and labor for long enough to figure this out. If we don't, the dominant fact of political life will be lurching from one institutional failure to the next. This will in turn cause people to hold attitudes about politics and labor that otherwise they might not hold. Such a prospect should trouble everyone who cares about the public sector.