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The positive impact of policy entrepreneurs in the public service

COMMENTARY | The rewards for entrepreneurial leadership by top government careerists are low. They shouldn't be.

The Senior Executive Service, the best and the brightest of the federal government’s career public servants, is full of policy entrepreneurs. But unlike entrepreneurs in the private sector, whose rewards pile up in their bank accounts, the rewards for these SESers and other top federal career officials lie in the satisfaction that comes from their contributions to the public good.

Top officials throughout the federal government do remarkable work, as the “Sammies”—the Partnership for Public Service’s “Service to America” awards—make clear, year after year. There’s Brian Key and Scott Bellamy at NASA, who led the project that successfully nudged an asteroid out of its orbit and proved we had the technology to save the earth from collision with a devastating space rock. At the Government Accountability Office, there’s Melissa Emrey-Arras, who led a crackdown on corrupt federal student loan schemes. Or consider Anne Lord Bailey and Caitlin Rawlins, whose team at the VA created a new generation of equipment and software to help VA medical centers across the country better care for the complex problems with which vets often must deal. 

These are precisely the kinds of leaders that the federal government most needs to encourage and nourish. 

There are enthusiastic academic articles that call for “energetic actors who engage in collaborative efforts in and around government to promote policy innovations,” as Michael Mintrom, professor of Public Policy at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, puts it. He argues, “the need is great for such actors to step forward and catalyze change processes.”

But there’s a catch here. On one hand, the policy challenges facing government agencies—and the managers with the responsibility for solving them—has never been greater. The number of problems for which people expect government to step in, from climate change to urban homelessness, is rising. They’re also getting more complex, because any reasonable solution requires building bridges across multiple government agencies and multiple sectors of society. 

On the other hand, the rewards for entrepreneurial leadership by top government careerists are low. With declining public trust and rising political attacks, the incentives for pathbreaking work might well be lower than in any previous generation. The attrition rate among members of the SES, a study by the Partnership for Public Service found, has hovered around 9.1% percent, 50% percent higher than for the federal career service as a whole.

There’s even a long history on the question of whether public servants even need to be entrepreneurial. In 1986, former Office of Personnel Management associate director Terry W. Culler argued that “most federal workers need only be competent,” and that society’s real talent ought to go to the private sector, where “wealth is produced rather than consumed.” Culler contended that “good enough” was, well, good enough.

But as companies struggling to deal with the bridge collapse in Baltimore, cancer patients hoping for help from the latest drug, California homeowners plagued by wildfires, and Native American tribes looking to crack rising crime rates would all testify, just “good enough” certainly isn’t good enough. All of them need federal entrepreneurs can help them crack their most pressing problems.

In doing so, however, creating the energy for doing so is invariably tough. In any difficult government decision, there are always winners and losers—and the losers are ready to jump into action to stop policies that threaten to leave them worse off. Nowhere is that more true than in the regulatory arena. One senior EPA official once told us that he wrote all new regulations with the expectation that they’d end up contested in court.

One of us—Jim Tozzi—has detailed the work of policy entrepreneurs from within the bureaucracy to establish and develop the work of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs within the Office of Management and Budget. Most accounts of OIRA’s work begin with the Paperwork Reduction Act (1980) and Executive Order 12291 (1981) and were included in the Reagan agenda.

In fact, this program of centralized regulatory review wasn’t a top-down brainchild of the Reagan team. It was, instead, the product of more than 15 years of innovation and testing, beginning in the Johnson administration—a process that grew out of the entrepreneurial thinking of top career officials in agencies from across the federal government. 

Over time, this entrepreneurship has grown into a centralized process of reviewing new regulations used by both Republican and Democratic administrations. After tremendous controversy at its launch, it’s also grown into broad acceptance of the principle of applying cost-benefit analysis to new regulations. The common-sense notion—that the federal government shouldn’t impose rules where the benefits fail to exceed their costs—has become hard-wired into the rulemaking process. 

This has become all the more salient with the Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025 transition plan, which calls extensively for the expansion of cost-benefit analysis across a host of government agencies. The plan is to use the analysis to ratchet back regulations to produce “the least burdensome rules possible.” At the same time, however, Project 2025 calls for bringing back the Schedule F policy of the Trump administration, which would make it easier to dismiss officials in policy-influencing positions. 

What we’ve learned in the last 50 years is that pursuing the latter makes it hard to do the former. Not only did the process of applying benefit-cost analysis to federal rules emerge from policy entrepreneurs among the career service. Assessing the costs of new rules and, especially, finding ways of ensuring the most benefits for the largest number of people requires highly skilled entrepreneurs among government’s career civil servants. 

In fact, a global movement to recognize public entrepreneurs is developing, with the help of the Schwab Foundation (which has created awards for social entrepreneurs), the World Economic Forum (which is focusing even more on collaboration), and the Senior Executive Service (which recognizes the role its officials play in entrepreneurial policy in the US). 

Policy entrepreneurs will never get their rewards in the same way as private entrepreneurs. But creating global awards for recognizing policy entrepreneurs, not just in American government but in other countries as well, would provide the incentives that matter most for public officials.

Policy entrepreneurs are long on influence but short on affluence. Awards that recognize and strengthen the coin of the realm in which they work would help feed the incentives that matter most. 

Jim Tozzi is head of the Center for Regulatory Effectiveness and former deputy administrator of OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs

Don Kettl is professor emeritus and former dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. He is the author of many books including, most recently, Bridgebuilders: How Government Can Transcend Boundaries to Solve Big Problems (with William D. Eggers) and The Little Guide to Writing for Impact (with Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene).