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Government’s Management Failures to Come

They're inevitable for a host of reasons, and the blame will fall on top elected officials. Can they fix problems before they become full-blown crises?

As new governors build their administrations, their minds are understandably focused primarily on their policy legacies. After all, most of them ran to make a difference in the lives of their citizens. Now is the time they are asked to deliver on their promises and policy prescriptions. But while these are exciting times for governors, they should remember the words of one of their predecessors, the late governor Mario Cuomo of New York: "You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose."

What does this mean for new chief executives? Regardless of their high-minded and passionate promises, governors, like presidents, will be held accountable for all manner of policy-delivery and management failures that were never even thought about in their campaigns.

We expect our governors, mayors and presidents to be the CEOs and COOs of government. The growing role and scope of government at all levels have elevated the profile of public-sector chief executives as the focal point for the public's frustrations as well as its hopes. At the national level, scandals such as those at the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Veterans Affairs, for example, have dimmed the public standing of President Obama, with 54 percent of the public believing that the he is not competently running the government. President George W. Bush came in for his own share of blame, such as for the inept federal response to Hurricane Katrina.

Governors also face the centralization of blame for management problems that happen to occur on their watch. Former governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, for example, was blamed for a series of management failures ranging from the Department of Children and Families losing track of a 5-year-old boy who was later found dead to expensive setbacks in the rollout of the state's Affordable Care Act health-insurance exchange.

There are many reasons why it's so likely that any administration will face these kinds of management problems. First, the stakes involved with government programs have exploded in recent decades with the growth of intergovernmental roles in health care, higher education, transportation and communications. The fact that most of these programs are delivered as mixed federal-state-local partnerships complicates the line of sight for the public and multiplies political casualties when management failures occur. Cheating on school tests in Atlanta exacted high political costs not only for the school district's officials but also for the president and his secretary of education, thanks to the expansion of the federal role in school testing under Presidents Bush and Obama.

Second, the governmental agenda is pockmarked with responsibilities that are increasingly complex. Consider the challenges involved in preventing infant mortality, improving schools or regulating and reducing carbon emissions that are warming the planet. These programs typically entail partnerships and indirect governance tools that often fail to overcome steep odds against progress due to deeply rooted social, economic and cultural forces.

Third, divided and polarized government has provided new impetus for increasingly contentious and theatrical oversight designed to blame, chasten and shame. A more expansive government meets a new breed of political opponents brandishing management and implementation issues as a sword to wound elected chief executives. Social-media tools are used to mobilize and intensify opposition as never before.

In this environment, deep-seated management challenges require an engaged chief executive to instill the sense of urgency and institute reforms needed to head off future scandals and mitigate risks of fraud and abuse. While the media and public often view management problems as being caused by short-term leadership or situational factors, in fact the failures of government programs typically stem from chronic and perennial shortfalls in management capacity, incentives, technology and cross-sector collaboration. Yet governors and other officials are reluctant to invest their personal time and energy to deal with these underlying challenges until they break the surface in the form of a crisis.

How can a chief executive sit on the sidelines, oblivious to potential threats to his own political survival and legacy? It's not that they don't care. Rather, they face a fundamental asymmetry in political incentives. Simply put, success is expected but not rewarded. Had the IRS crisis over certifying tax-exempt organizations not occurred, its excellent commissioner, John Koskinen, would have received little public acclaim or notice for achieving an uneventful filing season in the face of four years of reduced staff and budgets.

And chief executives know that far-sighted actions to derail long-term management problems may only accrue to their successors; in our political system, there is no political credit for paying it forward. By contrast, officials gain political credit when they craft new policies fulfilling promises to key constituencies. Thus our political incentives subject both presidents and governors to the certainty of management failures in the future

As one who is prone to search for institutional fixes for public-policy problems, I am hard-pressed to come up with a neat solution that will provide political incentives for top officials to deal with incipient management problems and risks before they become full-blown crises. Nonetheless, occasionally public leaders, perhaps imbued with a public-service ethic from years in the trenches of governance, do embrace long-term reforms. Whether they achieve this in poetry or in prose, it's the best legacy of all.

For governors and other elected officials looking for ways to avoid and mitigate management and program failures, this transition guidance developed by the National Governors Association is invaluable.

The late director of the public administration program at George Mason University
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