A Great Print Run

There’s nothing quite like a magazine—with its text and headlines and photos and charts and graphs and sense of humor—to tell a story. Government Executive has been doing that for decades. Now, with the last issue of the print magazine, we’re moving ahead into the digital-only age.

So it seems the right time to reflect on what we’ve done since we acquired the magazine in 1987. I took over then as editor for two decades, before handing the reins to Tom Shoop in 2007.

Ever since Government Executive began in 1969, with Richard Nixon on its cover, advertising revenue has been its lifeblood. Federal managers and executives, and senior military officers, received the magazine at no charge. Eventually, we gained 75,000 subscribers and estimated that about 350,000 people read each issue.

At one point, we produced 22 issues a year. The number gradually declined to six a year as readers’ attention and advertising dollars shifted online. 

To serve the demand, we moved ahead with strong and diversified digital efforts. We began with the launch of GovExec.com in 1996, and later created online publications on technology (Nexgov), national security (Defense One), and state and local government (Route Fifty). 

Shaping Perceptions

Magazines shape people’s perceptions of the topics they cover. Federal officials work in specialties that don’t always provide a broad perspective on the government at large. But we have done that for them. 

Our analysis was often more credible than official pronouncements from on high. The White House or Office of Management and Budget could undertake yet another management or reform initiative, and paint rosy portraits of progress, but we would cast an independent eye and tell it like it was.

In one memorable example, we declared in October 1989 that Washington was running a “Hollow Government.” The cover depicted a flimsy house of cards, and the tagline read: “The incapacitating consequences of continuing austerity.” Staff writer Mark Goldstein found case after case of agencies’ inability to fulfill their missions.  The “Hollow Government” phrase became part of the public administration lexicon, used often in subsequent scholarly studies.

Austerity was a continuing theme deep into the Clinton administration and beyond. For our March 1996 cover, we photographed a rented chainsaw alongside an ax, a meat cleaver and three knives, to emphasize the prospect of deep budget reductions. 

This was two years after Newt Gingrich and his Contract With America had led Republicans to their first majority in the House in many years. We had fun with the Gingrich revolution. In January 1995, our cover depicted Gingrich with a king’s crown on his head, and our headline read:  “Royal Flush: Shrinking government is the game, and Newt Gingrich holds the high hand.”  

We didn’t really think Gingrich could wave his hand and eliminate big government. The May 1995 cover made the point with a tombstone engraved, “Big Government, 1932-1995, R.I.P.” From the grave itself a ghastly hand emerged to suggest that big government was, as our headline pronounced, “Not Dead Yet.”

Then, in 1996, President Clinton declared that “the era of big government is over.” We remained skeptical. To be sure, he was shrinking the bureaucracy, reaping the dividends of the Cold War’s end. At the same time, he was an outsourcer. In June 1995, our cover showed a space shuttle with a “For Sale” sign on its windshield, and our May 1999 cover depicted an apple chewed “Down to the Core” as the Pentagon targeted 230,000 jobs for “auction to the lowest bidder.”

The number of federal employees was a key measure Clinton and other politicians used to gauge the size of government, and they worked to keep the head count down. But full-time federal positions weren’t a good indicator, we concluded in a 1999 cover story. Titled “The True Size of Government,” the article by public administration scholar Paul Light put the number of jobs created by federal grants, contracts and mandates at 12.7 million—far outstripping the 4.3 million civilian, military and postal service jobs on the official federal payroll. 

Focusing on Management

True to our mission as “government’s business magazine,” we devoted a lot of ink to the management imperatives of federal agencies. The topics were endlessly interesting. 

How did the Defense Department meet huge organizational challenges? Could the 22-agency merger that created the Homeland Security Department possibly work? How did NASA approach its goal of sending astronauts to Mars? Was Customs and Border Protection properly organized to control the nation’s borders? 

Could the Education Department
really make a difference with new mandates like No Child Left Behind? Were federal emergency management personnel up to tackling emergencies like hurricanes Katrina and Sandy? How could government quickly—and responsibly—spend more than $800 billion in anti-recession stimulus funds? What could be done about rampant fraud and abuse in entitlement programs? Were the feds treating wounded warriors as they should? How were women faring in the civil service and the military? Could agencies cooperate to effectively implement the complex
Obamacare health reform law? 

Although managing the bureaucracy isn’t at the top of any president’s priority list, each feels compelled to have a management agenda. One that enlisted a lot of civil servants was the Clinton-era National Performance Review, led by Vice President Al Gore. 

When the NPR wanted to hold a gathering of federal “reinventors” from around the country, we stepped in to help. The first Reinvention Revolution conference was held in 1996. That was the beginning of a long-running series of (renamed) Excellence in Government annual events—some running three days and attracting hundreds of attendees.

Our role in these events fortified our position as “the communications hub of the good government community,” as I liked to say. We worked closely with the Council for Excellence in Government, and were founders, with the Partnership for Public Service, of the Service to America Medals program honoring high-achieving feds. We sponsored many other awards programs to recognize best practices in technology, travel management, procurement and more.

The quality of our journalism gave us standing to undertake a rigorous program to evaluate federal agencies’ performance. Paul Light, then an executive with the Pew Charitable Trusts, in 1997 proposed that we undertake the Federal Performance Project in cooperation with leading public administration scholars, first from Syracuse University and later from The George Washington University. In this four-year undertaking, led by then-Deputy Editor Anne Laurent, we rated more than 30 federal agencies on their management capacity.

Lifting the Fog

In the end, it’s always been about the bureaucracy. We’ve shown it respect, poked fun at it, and felt the pain of readers lost in its maze. 

I used to call myself the “Boswell of the Bureaucracy,” and once penned this stanza to describe our work:

In the land of GovExecu,

By the bureaucratic bog,

Lived a band of magaziners

Lighting up the murky fog.

We’ve used the term “bureaucrat” sparingly, and have taken pride in counting nearly all of the Senior Executive Service as subscribers. But we have focused on many of the bureaucracy’s problems.

 In January of this year, against a red-tape backdrop, our cover proclaimed:  “Can’t Hire; Can’t Fire: Other than that, everything’s great with the civil service system.” We won a Jesse H. Neal Award from American Business Media for our late colleague Bob Brewin’s reporting on the poor treatment of wounded warriors returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. 

We also celebrated bureaucratic triumphs. In November 1990, we put all hands on deck to document the incredible logistics effort that preceded the U.S. victory in Operation Desert Storm. James Kitfield, won the Gerald R. Ford Award for Reporting on National Defense for that effort. 

We made other deadline dashes. In September 2001, we threw our October issue plan out the window to report on agencies’ response to the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. In October 2005, six writers contributed to a special report on Hurricane Katrina and its effects on government at all levels. 

We continue to win awards, including a Neal Award last fall for “Crime Scene,” Kellie Lunney’s investigation of law enforcement on Indian reservations.

Many people contributed to the success of the magazine over the years—
editors, correspondents, designers, advertising sales representatives, marketing experts and more. Some, such as Deputy Editor Katherine McIntire Peters and Managing Editor Sue Fourney, have been with us for two decades or more. 

Along the way, we’ve always enjoyed the strong support of our owners, both at National Journal Group, led by John Fox Sullivan, and later under the umbrella of David Bradley’s Atlantic Media Company.  

I hope we can do our audience proud as we march toward our digital-only future. 

Tim Clark, editor at large, was editor in chief, publisher and president of Government Executive. He also is co-founder of National Journal, a sister publication, and a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration.

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