Governing 101

Running the country is a lot harder than it looks.

In his blog at the online magazine Slate, Mickey Kaus recently pondered the age-old question of why successful political campaigns so often fail to make the transition to effective presidential administrations. "When you report on a campaign," he wrote, "you notice that virtually all major candidates' advance men and women are astonishingly, scarily competent-full of energy, able to organize a three-factory tour with portable bleachers in 10 minutes. Where do these people go when the governing starts? Are they so tired they sleep for four years?"

Here's at least one answer: The smart people in this group stick to what they know best-campaigning-because governing is much, much harder. One of the great fallacies of political campaigns is that people assume successful ones are so difficult to pull off that the people responsible for them can manage anything. But with all due respect, anyone with a cell phone and a decent amount of caffeine in their system can organize a three-factory tour with portable bleachers in 10 minutes. Organizing, say, an emergency response system that can meet the needs of a huge American city that is underwater as a result of a massive hurricane is another matter altogether.

In the American system, there are three levels of government operations: campaigning, policymaking and management/implementation. Each is harder than the one preceding it. This is why millions of people at all levels of government spend their professional lives figuring out how to effectively manage in the public sector.

Governance is sort of like the old saw about military operations: Amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics. The same people who can put together a winning coalition, craft an effective media message, and package their candidate as a likable person and effective leader often are flummoxed by the day-to-day challenges of running the United States.

Presidents want to be remembered for two things: grand policy achievements and international leadership. Unfortunately, their best-laid plans are frequently derailed (think Bill Clinton with health care and Middle East peace, or George W. Bush with Social Security reform and the war on terror). They are far more likely to be judged on how the federal bureaucracy they lead responds to the unforeseen challenges that inevitably arise.

All presidents understand this on some level. Their typical response is to try to elevate management to the grand policy level. But that rarely works out. Jimmy Carter's civil service reform and Clinton's reinventing government campaign didn't do much to burnish their leadership credentials. Likewise, you'd be hard-pressed to find a member of the public who is even aware that Bush has something called the President's Management Agenda.

The problem is that people aren't much interested in the nitty-gritty of making government function better in the abstract. But they are intensely interested in such issues as applied to specific circumstances-especially natural disasters. Indeed, the next president would be well-served to channel whatever interest he or she has in the subject of management and public administration into making the Federal Emergency Management Agency as effective as possible.

Ever since Hurricane Hugo in 1989, FEMA has become the public face of government in a way that no other agency is. (The Defense Department doesn't count, because people perceive it as a different animal than the domestic federal bureaucracy.) Most people, thankfully, never have to interact directly with FEMA. But they get almost annual opportunities to sit in front of their TVs and watch how the agency treats their fellow citizens under the worst of circumstances.

It took President Bush five years to find a FEMA director, R. David Paulison, with a wealth of experience in emergency response. And Paulison didn't get the job until after FEMA was forced to endure a bureaucratic reorganization that took away its independence and turned in a post-hurricane performance that drew widespread scorn.

Not only at FEMA but at agencies across government, it might make sense to find the David Paulisons of the world on the front end. Using their expertise and experience from the beginning of a president's term would have a deeper and longer-lasting effect than any management reform effort ever could.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec