Promising Practices Promising PracticesPromising Practices
A forum for government's best ideas and most innovative leaders.

The Rule of Nobody: When Leaders Can’t Lead


Recent polling of the federal workforce suggests that morale is worse than ever. Limits on pay increases, furloughs, and the generally negative tone pervading political and media discussions of agencies and their employees surely contribute to the gloom.

But perhaps there’s another side to civil servants’ discontent: their inability to take risks, make decisions outside of strict norms, to make a difference in progress toward the common good. Perhaps they feel caught in a spider’s web of complex and detailed laws and regulations.

Analysts for centuries have perceived bureaucracies as slow, inefficient and impermeable to change. This picture emerges again in a new book from Philip K. Howard, an iconoclastic thinker and activist on improving government in the United States. Its title, The Rule of Nobody, suggests his provocative thesis: that the United States suffers not from overweening government authority but from a deficit in power to take action on issues large and small.

Howard is a lawyer, a partner at Covington and Burling in New York, versed in legal theory and with a fine appreciation for the unintended effects of accumulating law and regulation in our country--an accretion that increasingly deprives officials of the power to decide.

In all, Howard calculates, the federal government has produced 100 million words of binding law and regulations, and state and local regulators another 2 billion. And there’s little effort to make sure new initiatives fit with the old, or to discard outdated programs and rules. It’s like accumulation of sediment in a harbor, as Howard observes.

Who can understand the Affordable Care Act, whose 2,700 pages have spawned many more thousands of pages of regulations? How can banks, even with armies of lawyers, comply with the Dodd-Frank law on banking oversight, whose regulatory juggernaut has produced more than 1,000 pages just to implement what was intended as a simple dictate banning proprietary trading? The complex Medicare program is getting ever more complex, with its reimbursement categories set to increase exponentially next year, to well over 100,000.

Regulatory regimes go too far. Hemmed in by rules, teachers in the classroom can hardly discipline unruly students, cannot pat someone on the back for a job well done, and in many cases are confined to teaching to the test. It’s little wonder that parents are deserting public education for private, as in New Orleans whose school system has just converted to an all-charter model. The nursing home industry is cited as also suffering from excessive regulation, with highly detailed, prescriptive rules taking most of the soul out of caregiving.

Desperately needed infrastructure in this country is often held up because so much permitting is required and no one is empowered to give the go-ahead. A project to raise the roadbed on the Bayonne Bridge in New Jersey, key to keeping the port in business in the new era of global supertankers, is a leading example. Even President Obama, with a designation of the bridge as a key infrastructure project, could not definitively get through the thicket of reviews (resulting in 47 permits) and lawsuits holding up its progress. It’s a classic case of the Rule of Nobody.

Howard laments the condition of people whose jobs in government don’t come with the authority to make things happen. “People lose their energy when they’re forced to trudge through life just doing what they’re told,” he writes. “Centralized legal dictates make people go brain dead. People not only don’t have fun, but don’t get much done. That’s what’s happened to government employees.”

So what can be done? Howard has a sweeping vision of reform, encompassing simplification of regulatory regimes, more reliance on officials’ sense of what is right in particular circumstances, and less rote judicial review. 

He suggests that Congress appoint special “spring cleaning” commissions to help recodify the law in many fields, such as education and infrastructure approval. Looking forward, he proposes that all laws with budgetary impact automatically expire after 15 years. He suggests steps to enhance presidential authority, including more latitude to deal with personnel and other management issues. To expedite decision-making, Howard would construct limits on people’s ability to bring suit without first showing illegality or abuse of discretion.

Finally, Howard makes a powerful case for institutionalizing a system of citizen oversight of the federal government. He notes that civic groups in places like New York City have attained reputations for independence, and thus the moral authority, to speak out effectively for the public good. It’s happened in Washington too from time to time. In 2010, for instance, former Sen. Alan K. Simpson,  R-Wyo., and former White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles, who was president of the University of North Carolina system after serving as President Clinton’s chief of staff, teamed up to analyze the country’s fiscal issues. Their credibility ensured that the Simpson-Bowles Commission’s report would become a vital part of the ongoing debate about controlling deficit spending.

A new group, perhaps called the Council of Citizens, would be composed of distinguished citizens without regard to partisan affiliation. It could gain the moral authority to advocate long-range actions of benefit to the nation and to critique those who would “saddle society with long-term costs for short-term political gain.”

This ambitious vision might require, in Howard’s estimation, five new constitutional amendments. That is a heavy lift, but who knows, a principled appeal might form the basis for a political movement strong enough to turn another page in our evolving system of government.

Tim Clark served as editor in chief, publisher and president of Government Executive in the years since it was acquired by National Journal Group in 1987. He and his colleagues have built Government Executive into an essential source for federal managers, a shaper of the government management debate and a key player in the good-government movement. Clark has spent his journalistic career studying and writing about government, and is a founder of National Journal, Washington’s premier source of political insight. He also founded Empire State Report, a monthly magazine about government in New York. He is a fellow and former board member of the National Academy of Public Administration.

Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Going Agile:Revolutionizing Federal Digital Services Delivery

    Here’s one indication that times have changed: Harriet Tubman is going to be the next face of the twenty dollar bill. Another sign of change? The way in which the federal government arrived at that decision.

  • Cyber Risk Report: Cybercrime Trends from 2016

    In our first half 2016 cyber trends report, SurfWatch Labs threat intelligence analysts noted one key theme – the interconnected nature of cybercrime – and the second half of the year saw organizations continuing to struggle with that reality. The number of potential cyber threats, the pool of already compromised information, and the ease of finding increasingly sophisticated cybercriminal tools continued to snowball throughout the year.

  • Featured Content from RSA Conference: Dissed by NIST

    Learn more about the latest draft of the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology guidance document on authentication and lifecycle management.

  • GBC Issue Brief: The Future of 9-1-1

    A Look Into the Next Generation of Emergency Services

  • GBC Survey Report: Securing the Perimeters

    A candid survey on cybersecurity in state and local governments

  • The New IP: Moving Government Agencies Toward the Network of The Future

    Federal IT managers are looking to modernize legacy network infrastructures that are taxed by growing demands from mobile devices, video, vast amounts of data, and more. This issue brief discusses the federal government network landscape, as well as market, financial force drivers for network modernization.

  • eBook: State & Local Cybersecurity

    CenturyLink is committed to helping state and local governments meet their cybersecurity challenges. Towards that end, CenturyLink commissioned a study from the Government Business Council that looked at the perceptions, attitudes and experiences of state and local leaders around the cybersecurity issue. The results were surprising in a number of ways. Learn more about their findings and the ways in which state and local governments can combat cybersecurity threats with this eBook.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.