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‘Clumsy But Temporarily Effective’: American Public Policy And Government

By Mary Hamilton

New York Times columnist David Brooks called it “a mind-altering essay” when he gave it one of his end of year 2013 ‘highly prestigious’ Sidney Awards for best magazine essays of the year. The article is Kludgeocracy in America by Johns Hopkins political science professor, Steven M. Teles.

Why should you read this article?

I’ll let you decide if the essay is ‘mind-altering’. I think it is very important to our thinking about what we need to be teaching current and future public managers in our MPA programs. If you are like us here at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, you are working hard to develop the NASPAA-required competencies for your MPA program and possibly, like us, seeing this as an opportunity to revise your curriculum. I recommend you read and discuss this article in the process of making those decisions.

public policyWhy? Because Teles’ arguments about the major challenges of government management describe a very different reality than most of us are communicating to our students. He argues that the problem with government isn’t its size, it is its complexity. And he argues that complexity produces incoherence, even to the point that “we have arrived at a form of government with no ideological justification whatsoever.”

Further, he argues that the complexity and incoherence of today’s government greatly reduces transparency and makes it much more difficult for us to understand what government is doing. He calls this nexus of problems “Kludgeocracy,” borrowing the word “kludge” from computer programming where kludge = “an inelegant patch put in place to solve an unexpected problem and designed to be backward-compatible with the rest of an existing system.” Does that sound like any policy options or program ‘fixes’ you have come across?

What does he say that’s so important?

In the 9-page essay, Teles outlines the costs of complexity to citizens, government and to our democracy. He cites the causes:

  • “The structure of American governmental institutions” (especially the numerous veto points in our systems).
  •  “The public’s ambivalent and contradictory expectations of government” (i.e., “Americans are ideological conservatives and operational liberals.”).
  • The “emergence of a ‘kludge industry’ that supplies a constant stream of complicated, roundabout policy solutions.”

Finally, with many caveats about the difficulty (impossibility??) of making significant changes in our system to reduce the ‘Kludgeocracy’ and make government simpler, more transparent and wieldy, Teles outlines some ways we could help change institutions “at the margins” and help “shift values incrementally.”

What does he suggest we do about Kludgeocracy?

Most of Teles’ “cures” are controlled by Congress. To reduce “the number of extra-constitutional veto points in our system”, Teles recommends “eliminating or radically reducing the filibuster in the Senate” which the Senate did a couple of months after this article was published. It will be interesting to see how much that affects government complexity.

Toward the same end of reducing veto points, Teles also recommends:

  • Reducing multiple referrals to congressional committees (no obvious action on that front).
  • Shifting “the power over ‘micro-design’ of policies away from Capitol Hill and toward the agencies that will actually have to administer them.”
  • “Reconsider our system of federal grants to the states”, especially in education and health care. Give the problem to either the federal government or the states, but not both.
  • “Change institutional rules in Congress to increase the visibility of policy complexity’s costs,” i.e., require the Congressional Budget Office to include the compliance costs of policies with their deficit scores to lay bare what is actually happening. This might spur some politicians to try to reduce those costs as well as the more visible ones.

To address the emergence of a kludge industry, Teles suggests “an attack on the kludge industry, given that it both lives off of and helps create demand for policy complexity.” He suggests starting with the Department of Defense. (Given his announcement this week (February 24) about dramatically cutting the Defense budget, I wonder if Nebraska’s former Senator, now Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, read this essay or came to a similar conclusion on his own.)

What is our job as educators of current and future public leaders and managers? 

First, it seems to me that we should attempt to ‘do no harm’. We should be asking ourselves if our programs are encouraging future public leaders and managers to value complex policy options or program improvements over simpler, less ‘sexy’ ones. Are we challenging them to imagine how they would attempt to simplify something as complicated as our tax code or how they would design a simple approach to managing education in our society? Are we teaching them how to keep things from getting even more complex and opaque?

Second, I think we should make sure our students understand the context they will be working in—the hidden, complex, inner workings of government, the messy interactions involved in federal and state governments sharing management of health care with each other and a myriad of local government, private sector and nonprofit entities.

Third, we should alert students to the opportunities to nudge government institutions and policies toward incremental change in their values and practices. We should be careful not to exaggerate the barriers or the possible successes, while also preparing them to see very small positive changes as worthy of their efforts.

Those are my thoughts about how we should use this essay to inform our MPA programs. What are your ideas?

For additional discussion of this article:

Interview of Steven M. Teles by Ezra Klein of The Washington Post.

Article on the essay in The Economist: “Health-Care Reform: America’s Kludgiest Kludgeocracy.

Article from The Daily Beast: America’s Kludeocracy Democracy” by David Frum.
Author: Mary R. Hamilton is a senior executive in residence at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She can be reached at [email protected].

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