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Big Government Is Back. Is the Civil Service Ready?

The administration must seriously consider whether the civil service is equipped to effectively implement Biden’s vision. A new book offers guidance.

During my 40 plus years in Washington, I have seen the pendulum swing from “big government” to “small government” and back again many times. Big government in. Big government out. Privatization in. Privatization out. Contracting out in. Contracting out out. 

With the progressive Biden presidency, an era of big government seems to be returning. The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan has passed. A $2 trillion American Jobs Plan is now being negotiated on Capitol Hill. A $300 billion (or more) American Families Plan has been unveiled. In her new book, Mission Economy: A Moonshot Guide to Changing Capitalism, Mariana Mazzucato provides an academic framework in support of ambitious big government.  Mazzucato, a professor in Economics of Innovation and Public Value at University College London, argues that it is time to change the conventional wisdom that government is a “clunky bureaucratic machine that cannot innovate.” She argues that the traditional view that civil servants are not as creative and risk-taking as the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley needs to change. 

Mazzucato asserts that the nation cannot effectively attack its many challenges until government becomes a more proactive leader in public-private endeavors. Her model for a proactive government is based on the successful Apollo spaceflight program. She sets forth six attributes of the program that she argues should guide government action in the 2020s: a clear vision and goals; risk-taking and innovation; organizational dynamism; collaboration across multiple sectors; long-term horizons and budgeting; and dynamic partnerships between the public and private sectors. Mazzucato discusses how Apollo exemplified each attribute and how this model can be applied to current national challenges, such as climate change and health care.  

Instead of limiting itself to “fixing” market failures when necessary, Mazzacuto argues for what she calls “market shaping” in which government takes proactive action to build new markets and associated ecosystems. In addition to NASA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency serves as another model of “market shaping.” 

Mazzucato sets out the following challenge: “What if government, instead of being viewed as cumbersome while the private sector takes the risk, bears the greatest level of uncertainty and reforms its internal organization to take …risks?”

If we are entering another era of big government as the first 100 days of Biden’s term certainly signals, the administration must seriously consider whether the current civil service is equipped and ready to effectively implement a big government agenda. Specifically, the administration should explore the following questions:

  • Are there enough civil servants to implement a big government agenda? Mazzucato discusses the “hollowing out” of the UK government in recent years, noting that between 1985 and 2015, the civil service was cut by one-third as public spending doubled. The Biden administration needs to examine the head count of each department and agency to understand the dynamics of attrition. 
  • Do civil servants have the right skills to implement a big government agenda? With the increase in contracting out services in both the United States and United Kingdom, Mazzucato observes that government has not been attracting the level of in-house expertise it once did. If the most challenging mission work is outsourced, the most highly skilled employees will find work in the private and non-profit sectors more attractive, she argues. During the Apollo years, government easily attracted top-notch scientists because of both the mission—sending humans to the moon—and the opportunity to be involved in cutting-edge scientific work. Mazzucato quotes a UK minister, “Not only is outsourcing outrageously expensive … it deprives ‘our brightest (civil servants) of opportunities to work on some of the most challenging, fulfilling and crunchy issues.’”
  • How does the Biden administration create a cadre of risk-takers in the civil service? In many ways, this is the most difficult personnel challenge now facing the White House. Mazzucato writes, “Since the 1980s, a mindset of aversion to risk has filled civil servants with the fear of doing anything more than facilitating the private sector. Risk-taking is not supposed to be part of their job description.”   

Mazzucato proposes rethinking how the civil service is managed—how workers are trained, how their performance is assessed and how they are promoted—as well as how the work itself is managed to create an environment more tolerant of risk and experimentation. This will indeed be a challenge.  

The first 100 days of the Biden administration saw the passage of major legislation; the second 100 days may bring an even greater expansion of programs and promises to the American public.   To ensure these promises are kept, the administration will need a highly skilled, high-performing civil service to deliver results.  

Mark A. Abramson is president of Leadership Inc. His most recent book is Government for the Future: Reflection and Vision for Tomorrow’s Leaders (with Daniel J. Chenok and John M. Kamensky). His email address is mark.abramson@comcast.net.