Learning Curve

Failures in government can teach us how to succeed.

Ever since the United States landed a man on the moon in 1969, people have asked themselves why this amazing feat seemingly can't be followed by successful design and execution of other ambitious government programs. Why has government become known, since then, more for failures than successes?

The many answers to that question are examined in a new book, If We Can Put a Man on the Moon, by two insightful analysts, William Eggers and John O'Leary. Scheduled for publication in late October by Harvard Business Press, it's timely in light of the huge policy changes now being debated in Washington.

Why can't we be more successful? Well, we often start with a poor, or poorly designed, idea. We give little or no thought to how it might be implemented. We subject it to legislative processes that invite dilution, or untrammeled augmentation, of the core purpose. We are guilty of overconfidence and not sensitive enough to the key role of careful program design. We tolerate bureaucratic systems that don't include strong incentives for high performance. And we entrust execution of programs to people who are conditioned to fear failure and lack the know-how to make programs work in a world where success demands cooperation by many sectors of society.

Eggers and O'Leary support these conclusions with case studies and surveys of Senior Executive Service members and National Academy of Public Administration fellows. Government Executive helped the authors with the SES portion of their research.

About half our sample of senior executives deemed government less capable of managing big programs than it was 10 years ago. Administrative and political constraints and lack of effective political leadership were seen as principal reasons. The SES members were highly critical of program design, blaming unrealistic goal-setting and little consideration of both risks and implementation challenges the policies entailed.

The authors cite chapter and verse on the problems and failures they see from various sectors of government: Boston's Big Dig; as well as that city's disastrous, judicially mandated desegregation program; California's attempt to manipulate energy markets that led to the defeat of then-Gov. Gray Davis; the early experience with Medicare's new prescription drug program; the "expensive disappointment" of the No Child Left Behind program; poorly conceived wars in Asia.

But their purpose is not simply to explain why such programs were problem-plagued, but also to chronicle government successes from which lessons can be drawn. They write about the process of design and enactment of the path-breaking Massachusetts health care program, attributing this achievement to consensus-building by then-Gov. Mitt Romney and design by a group of outsiders-economists who had no institutional skin in the game. The same factors, and a massive professional public relations campaign, contributed to the successful implementation in London of a downtown congestion-pricing program-a controversial concept that has so far been stymied by opposition in U.S. cities. A bipartisan alliance and careful heed to economists' advice led to enactment in 1990 of the acid rain tradable permit program, now considered one of the country's most successful environmental initiatives.

The kind of dangers the book describes confront us now. The $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program and the $787 economic stimulus package were based on ideas about how they'd help the economy. But the ideas could be wrong, and design of the programs was chaotic. A huge health care plan, with execution challenges dwarfing any recent government endeavor, is stumbling its way through Congress, and an expensive climate change policy is hard on its heels. These huge endeavors can't be managed with the objective research and engineering that put a man on the moon. They are arguably more complex. If, with hindsight, we judge them successful, they likely will have been governed along the lines suggested in Eggers and O'Leary's book.

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