The Bureaucrat and the Telescope

NASA, James Webb, and networked government...
by | June 9, 2010 AT 3:00 AM

James E. Webb, NASA administratorNASA's James Webb Space Telescope is slated for launch in 2014. This powerful telescope could give scientists clues about the formation of the universe. Those seeking insight into how to effectively manage public organizations could do worse than to study the career of the telescope's namesake, James Webb.

Most people have never heard of James Webb, but he headed up NASA from 1961 to 1968. Though he never got a ticker-tape parade, Webb may have been the most indispensible contributor to arguably the greatest public-sector achievement in American history, leading the NASA space program through the political, administrative and technical challenge of putting a man on the moon.

The effort to put a man on the moon cost roughly $24 billion, required the involvement of 20,000 industrial firms, 200 university labs and 400,000 public and private workers. How did Webb pull it off? Webb was a master at bridging the divide between the political and bureaucratic worlds. He was a pioneer in the field of networked government. He spent a third of his time interacting with key politicians, a third of his time directing his staff and a third of his time managing critical contracts with private-sector companies and universities -- private players who were essential to the space effort. Webb's infectious enthusiasm motivated all of them, from NASA employees to members of Congress.

Under his direction, NASA became synonymous with good government and high achievement. Somehow, Webb made all the parts work together. For the astronauts, that was important because, as they used to joke, they were riding to the moon in a rocket made up of 20,000 parts -- all of them made by the lowest bidder.

In fact, one of the biggest challenges facing government today is its ability to effectively coordinate the efforts of public and private producers in increasingly complex undertakings. The trouble occurs in specialized, complex relationships: The IRS struggled to modernize its computer systems; Indiana encountered problems trying to outsource welfare benefits; and the contracting systems in Iraq and Afghanistan have encountered significant problems.

Luckily, Webb and NASA have faced similar challenges. Think about it: If you are hiring someone to design and build a lunar module, you can't very well look them up in the Yellow Pages. You can't very well check their references on other lunar modules they've built.

Time and again the public sector relearns this often painful lesson: Contracting out doesn't eliminate government's problems, it merely substitutes one set of challenges for another. Instead of being worried about using an internal bureaucracy to produce results, you now have to worry about structuring a contract that encourages competition, provides proper incentives and allows for constructive dispute resolution. You have to define and measure results, and deal with the unexpected surprises lurking down the road.

The history of public management over the past two decades has largely been a struggle to improve the ability of government to effectively and efficiently deliver services through a managed network of public, private and nonprofit providers. In their 1992 book Reinventing Government, authors David Osborne and Ted Gaebler offered ten rules for transforming the public sector. Rule number one was "Steer, don't row." Rule number ten was "solve problems by influencing market forces rather than creating public programs." Through the Clinton years the National Performance Review sought to put the ideas of Reinventing Government into practice, with some success. More recently the techniques of "governing by network," as described in a book of the same name by Stephen Goldsmith and William D. Eggers, have been enhanced by the introduction of new technologies.

The record shows that the benefits of partnering can be substantial, but they don't come without effort and some risk. Public officials still face the challenge of effectively managing third-party providers.

At the same time, the challenges of managing within the bureaucracy have multiplied as well.

Those who can effectively operate the levers of government -- public leaders like James Webb -- rarely get the appreciation they deserve. Webb understood how important public managers were. After he left NASA, he established the National Academy of Public Administration, dedicated to improving public-sector management.

Are you looking for ways to make government better, faster and cheaper? Look through the James Webb telescope, and take a look at the best practices for working with contractors and other partners. After all, the James Webb Space Telescope is being built by private contractor Northrop Grumman -- under the watchful eye of NASA.