Good News Is No News

Timothy B. Clark

In print journalism, good news is hardly ever real news. And television, always magnifying the worst tendencies of the media, takes the principle one step further: "If it bleeds, it leads," even on network national news shows.

To be sure, there really isn't much new in most "good news." Social Security checks get delivered on time. That's good, but is it news? The Internal Revenue Service accepts electronic filings. Terrific, but why didn't it happen yesterday? There's more interest in the press (and in Congress) in what's going wrong: security breaches in data systems; failure to keep track of monies owed to American Indians; the failings of the public schools. Reporters are, after all, self-styled watchdogs.

The media's watchdog culture often puts reporters at odds with government officials. James Kitfield's insightful exploration this month of the growing cultural chasm between the media and the military offers a case in point.

Are we at Government Executive watchdogs, like so many of our brethren? Or are we lapdogs? The question occurred to me last month as I sat through two separate meetings concerning awards programs to honor achievement in government. It's certainly true that our magazine looks for what's working well in government. I don't think that's much different from what our counterparts in the private-sector business press do in publications like Business Week and Fortune. Readers are interested in knowing what's succeeding as well as what's broken in their lines of work.

So there's little harm and some good that can come of such programs as the award for leadership that we have co-sponsored for years with the National Capital Area Chapter of the American Society for Public Administration. This year, the winners include the top leaders at the U.S. Mint, Philip Diehl and John Mitchell, who exemplify, our awards committee thought, the sort of productive relationship between political and career officials that should (but often doesn't) typify agency operations.

I hope readers will learn lessons from the other awards program: a new endeavor by the Council for Excellence in Government, the Office of Federal Procurement Policy and Government Executive to recognize innovation and excellence in federal acquisition practices. This new "Business Solutions in the Public Interest" awards program recognizes that carefully crafted partnerships between agencies and suppliers will be increasingly important in assuring acceptable service delivery in an environment of downsizing and tight budgets. Winners will be announced in August. Late this year, awardees will be identified in the two other programs we sponsor, in the fields of technology leadership and travel management reform.

More in watchdog style, we recognize that mistakes or failures can offer lessons as well. In this month's report on "The Technology Beast," Nancy Ferris, Joshua Dean and Brian Friel tease lessons not only from the accomplishments but also from the problems of five of the government's largest information technology projects. Our report last month on the results of the second annual Government Performance Project certainly highlighted management problems in the agencies it covered.

Life in government is full of ambiguities and difficulties and problems without clear solutions. In all of our articles, we attempt to tell it like it is, in the best tradition of independent journalistic observation.

Timothy B. Clark

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