Analysis: Winning Over Government Voters

By Steven L. Katz and Paul L. Posner

October 30, 2008

There is a silent bloc of voters who may determine the outcome of the 2008 election. Who are they? One hint is the victorious candidate for president must first campaign to win their vote on Nov. 4, then wage an even bigger campaign to gain their support to govern as chief executive of the United States government. This silent bloc is none other than the far-flung employees of the federal government, as well as their thousands of partners in state and local governments, nonprofit organizations and the private sector whom the president will have to rely on to deliver any major federal program.

The new chief executive will have to campaign to first to win their votes, then their loyalty to motivate and engage them. In contrast with recent efforts by both parties to depict government and its employees as the problem, the successful campaign will have to acknowledge that it is vital for government to work, whether to save capitalism from itself during the current crisis or to move the nation to achieve its higher aspirations for education, health care and energy independence.

Winning the government vote means campaigning hard to win the votes of millions of federal, state and local government workers who, according to the Census Bureau, have among the highest voter registration and turnout percentages of all Americans -- between 70 percent and 80 percent. In the federal government alone, there are 1.9 million civilian employees (not counting postal workers). Despite campaign rhetoric against Washington, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that nine of every 10 federal workers live or work outside Washington. And beyond that, Paul C. Light of New York University has estimated that the "true size of government" is more than 15 million strong, including not only civil servants at all levels of government, military service members and postal workers, but also state and local government employees working under federal grants, nonprofit organizations and private contractors.

Together this constitutes a voting bloc larger in number than the population of many cities across America, whose members have a firsthand knowledge and a personal stake in the manner and results of how the government is run.

These are the people the next president will lead in operating a trillion-dollar global public services organization that is at the center of American life to a greater degree than ever before -- managing the economy, wars, energy, the environment, health care, Social Security, homeland security, food safety and more. They are silent participants in the electoral process, because many of them are limited by the Hatch Act from participating in key aspects of political life -- including fund-raising or even wearing a campaign button at work.

Based on what we have seen from the Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns, several new strategies are central to winning the government vote necessary to reach the White House, and will be invaluable to leading from the Oval Office:

Establish and stress the importance of core values as president and chief executive that resonate with government voters.

Government voters do not want to hear and will not trust candidates' rhetoric about who is a bigger change agent. They want an honest and proactive discussion of how the next president will do the following:

Refrain from bashing the government.

On Sept. 11, 2001, the United States government shifted immediately from the periphery of American life to its center. Both presidential nominees should have realized that this signaled two important changes for their 2008 campaigns.

Bashing the government is perceived by government voters as a negative and gratuitous attack on the very people and programs on whom America depends and who the new president must lead. Campaigning on the backs of government workers, only to lean on these same people to get the work done, is a strategy that undercuts the trust and support that a new president must win for the government to fulfill its myriad missions of public importance.

Since Sept. 11, Americans have taken the role of government more seriously and want it to act more proactively. As we have seen from the role of the Treasury Department in the recent economic bailout and the federal takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, governmentnow is placing the federal workforce, including many new people we must hire, on the front lines of this crisis. The candidates must pledge to respect and work closely with government programs, and talk about them in real terms of what they contribute to the country.

Acknowledge that when bad politics happens to good government, the results are disastrous.

The next president will inherit a growing leadership gap between political appointees and experienced civil servants. To some extent this reflects a centralization of policy control in the White House during the past several decades, which isolates the president from his own appointees, as well as experts in the civil service. It reflects what Light calls the "thickening" of government -- the proliferation of political appointees in agencies that wall off the decision-making process from the input and influence of professionals and experts in government. At its worst, it can ensure the triumph of bad politics over good government.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and others relied on their own self-fulfilling reasoning over that of career military and civil servants who had the experience and maturity to know better. The dismantling of the Federal Emergency Management Agency during the creation of the Homeland Security Department and the leadership of that agency by political appointees with no background in emergency preparedness preordained the inept response to Hurricane Katrina.

Even though both candidates have criticized the Bush administration, they must provide a clear view about what the executive branch can do, and underscore how government at the department and program levels can meet people's needs and protect their interests. Both candidates must emphasize their expectations of qualifications their political appointees will possess, and how they will be expected to work with experts and professionals in the agencies. It is time that we honored and re-energized the values of neutral competence in our government that Woodrow Wilson first espoused nearly 100 years ago.

Recognize the costs that must be paid to get the government we want.

Another version of bad politics happens when the president and Congress pledge to solve problems while providing only a symbolic glimmer of the resources required to achieve results. The Consumer Product Safety Commission is a case in point: Years of budget reductions and regulatory constraints left this thinly staffed agency a parody of what a real consumer protection agency should do. The ability of the Food and Drug Administration to monitor and inspect imported foods similarly has been compromised. We are only now learning how the Securities and Exchange Commission dropped the ball in regulating investment banks even after our trading partners in Europe implored the commission to regulate its transactions. The voluntary regulatory program left it up to the banks themselves to develop standards and to self-monitor. Not surprisingly, this never happened, leaving the entire nation and the world economy as victims.

It is tempting to promise more than we can deliver, particularly when the failures to do so only become evident on someone else's watch. The next president will have a difficult job. We have a backlog of problems that have accumulated on the federal government's doorstep, with ever more limited budgetary resources to solve them. Meanwhile, the financial crisis and economic recession exacerbate the structural budget deficit. The new president will have to be artful in making room for new priorities by making tough choices to re-examine, reform and cut back on programs that either are no longer relevant, fail to deliver on their promises or are increasingly unaffordable.

In no small respect, the federal government's ability to deliver on its promises and to provide the resources that managers need to achieve results will depend on our collective capacity to reform Social Security and Medicare, which are threatening to consume the entire federal budget during the next several decades. And ultimately, this president will have to do something that has proved to be anathema in our politics -- ask for higher taxes, by whatever language. Once the recession passes, it will become more apparent that our spending appetite has outpaced our revenue intake completely. If we fail to rebalance the budget, the current financial crisis will seem like a walk in the park.

Lead the management of government through collaboration, not shaming and blaming. The new president will be held responsible for nearly every major problem the nation faces and for the performance of the entire workforce -- both government employees and contractors. Thus it is not only appropriate but necessary that he provide energetic central leadership of agencies. Presidents Clinton and Bush each launched initiatives that focused more attention on the performance of the federal establishment. Given the growing importance of government in the daily lives of the nation, the next president should continue to spur agencies to measure performance, demand greater accountability for results and eliminate programs that fail to deliver. In doing so, however, it will be critical that the president work collaboratively both with agencies and Congress to gain support for management improvements and reforms. Strategies relying on shame alone to gain attention to problems may produce short-term gains, but will be undermined and ultimately ignored in the longer term.

Getting more value for taxpayer money is important, but it requires the entire federal community -- agencies, appropriations committees, and intergovernmental and private partners -- to be on the same page about how to define what public values will be measured, monitored and delivered. The No Child Left Behind Act is an example of a federal initiative to drive performance that became unhinged when government officials failed to bring the most important stakeholders on board in the collaborative enterprise of public education. More often than not, the federal government is a relatively minor player in the areas it is trying to influence, whether that emergency preparedness, health care delivery or housing finance. Accordingly, the new president must master the art of leading from behind and work to engage the many stakeholders whose support for reforms is critical to making real progress.

Demonstrate the value of experience as a senator to serving as chief executive.

Instead of each of the nominees pretending that he lives in a bubble in Washington and on Capitol Hill, both should demonstrate that they understand exactly why the public preferred them to gubernatorial candidates during the primary. It is because the public is reacting to the numerous problems facing the country. With the crumbling of economic cornerstones in the post-primary season and the necessity of government intervention, the public wants someone who is already on the ground in Washington.

In fact, both candidates are being given the extraordinary opportunity -- the benefit of the doubt -- to step into the role as president with virtually none of the scrutiny of their track records and competencies that would required of a prospective CEO. The public knows that as legislators, both nominees have been deliberators, not decision-makers. Voters also have learned from the four recent governors elected president -- Reagan, Carter, Clinton and George W. Bush -- that executive experience at lower levels of government does not guarantee capability as a federal chief executive.

Lead, compel and leverage people, programs and resources across government -- including federal and intergovernmental collaboration -- to solve problems.

The next president must reverse the old-fashioned hierarchical approach to tackling the nation's biggest problems, which tends to bury the government's ability to grasp, manage and attack problems deep in the bureaucracy. During the past 40 years, policy has been centralized increasingly in Washington, while the real responsibility for delivery remains at the state, local and private sector levels. While federal budgets and programs have grown, the number of civil servants actually has declined, reflecting a greater reliance on nonfederal agents to do the real heavy lifting of delivering on government promises. From the Medicaid mandates of the 1990s to No Child Left Behind, federal officials have fostered a yoke of rules and mandates where carrots and collaboration would have been more successful.

Whether the subject is terrorism, health care, housing, energy, the environment or obesity, the next president needs to emphasize leveraging people and resources across boundaries to attack and solve problems. It should be clearer today than ever before that government has to avoid creating any unnecessary new structures to solve problems before considering how this will affect the capacity of our entire system to cope. Ultimately, the president should to learn how to implement truly national, not federal, programs and policies. This entails developing policies not within tight inner circles in the White House, but collaboratively with the many players whose input and resources are vital for success. A reconstituted intergovernmental office would be a small, but potentially effective, way to institutionalize a commitment to collaboration. Trying to go it alone will get us nowhere.

Paul L. Posner is director of George Mason University's Public Administration program and president-elect of the American Society for Public Administration. Steven L. Katz is former counsel to Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, on the Governmental Affairs Committee, an adviser in the Clinton White House, and author of the book Lion Taming: Working Successfully With Leaders, Bosses and Other Tough Customers (Sourcebook Inc., 2004).

By Steven L. Katz and Paul L. Posner

October 30, 2008