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Improve or Expire

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Richard Clay Wilson, Jr.
November 25, 2014

Wilson novThere are at least two sure-fire ways to engineer the demise of human institutions. The first way is slow, sometimes agonizingly slow, but sure nonetheless. It is to permit as little change as possible. The second way is fast. It is to change as much as possible all at once.

Many of our institutions of government are being led to their ultimate demise by means of the first method. It hardly matters that neither the stasis that grips these institutions, nor the inevitable result, is intended. Regardless of intentions, institutions unable to overcome stasis are headed for demise.

No one would argue for the proposition that institutions of government must be regarded as the equivalent of cherished historic buildings and landmarks, but they are. Consider how this happens. Almost everywhere in government there are two prerequisites to change. The first is that proposed changes must be initiated by elected officials. The second is that proposed changes must be approved by elected officials. Because everyone understands the second one, it gets all the blame. The first one, however, is the real killer.

At every level of government, elected officials are subjected to an insane number of competing demands for their attention and response. Only the most urgent of these demands can be taken up at all, much less translated into proposals for action, much less gather sufficient political support for approval. Moreover, because every proposal must have a political origin, every proposal elicits responses reflective of its political origin, which renders every proposal politically tendentious. The result is that only the politically urgent can be enacted.

Things have to be very bad indeed for managerial issues inside government institutions to become politically urgent. When it does happen, elected officials have no alternative but to respond. Their responses must deal, first and foremost, with political aspects. There is hardly ever time or opportunity to get at the underlying managerial issues that produced the problems in the first place. How could elected officials’ responses be otherwise? So it is that when managerial problems enter the political arena, outcomes rarely bear much relationship to the institutional issues that caused the problems.

The saga of Washington, D.C.’s public schools, which took place between 2007 and 2010, is a perfect illustration of what happens. First, the need to manage what had long been unmanaged rose to the political arena. Second, a mayor was elected on a platform of managerial reform. Third, a new school superintendent was hired to implement managerial reform. Fourth, forces against change rose up and defeated the reformers. These larger themes, in myriad variations, are in play constantly.

While there are thousands of other examples to choose from, these are my favorites:

  • The reorganization of intelligence agencies after Sept. 11, 2001.
  • Robert Gates’ efforts, as described in his book Duty, to manage the Department of Defense, which is all but impervious to management.
  • The managerial failures, over many decades, of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
  • The managerial shortcomings of the Department of Health and Human Services’ implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
  • The curious “Bridgegate” episode at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

In short, the status quo prevails in government agencies until it is politically imperative to change it. Even then, stasis mostly wins out. In terms of the notion set forth in the first paragraph of this article, political reality requires stasis except when it lurches to the other end of the continuum and demands that everything be changed. Both demands are very bad news for the organizations of government.

However in the presence of management, as in city manager cities and other entities with apolitical chief executives and classic managerial structures, the first prerequisite for change — that it be politically initiated — does not apply. In these settings, career chief executives, managers, and professionals at all levels continuously propose modifications and improvements which, unless they are rejected by political authorities, stand approved. This enables, and where management is competent ensures, continuous improvement.

If, over the past 50 years, professional management had been in place in the Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the kinds of comprehensive reforms that are now called for would be altogether unnecessary. Instead of stasis, continuous improvement would have happened. If continuous improvement had happened in Washington’s schools, Superintendent Michelle Rhee would not have been called upon to accomplish decades of work in one mayoral term.

The only possible way to obtain continuous organizational improvement in government is to build it in through professional management. A sea-change in the worldview of elected officials, of course, would have to take place first. here is no chance of such a thing.

That is why I tremble with fear when I think about the future of government’s institutions. I believe in those institutions, and regard their purposes as indispensable to a decent society. But in the absence of continuous improvement, even the very best institutions stop being indispensable and become highly dispensable instead. That is what is happening in government and it is a very bad thing for our country.

In my next column I will focus on the political side of these issues.


Author: Richard Clay Wilson, Jr. is a retired city manager with 38 years of local government experience. He is the author of the book Rethinking Public Administration: The Case for Management.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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