Monday, August 18, 2008

A Government Ill Executed - Introduction

In his introduction to A Government Ill Executed, Paul Light starts out by detailing his main thesis regarding why our federal government is having performance problems.

1. An agenda of "staggering reach" without adequate resources, leading to "a long list of frustrations."
2. A chain of command that is broken up by needless layers of management.
3. The broken appointment / confirmation process for Presidential appointees.
4. A federal workforce motivated more by compensation than meaningful work.
5. Young people seeking to do public service more likely to enter the non-profit / NGO world than the federal government.
6. A non-stop treadmill of administrative reforms that get discarded and replaced with every new administration.
7. The growth of the role of contractors, grantees and others who perform federal government work that used to be performed by employees of the US government.

To combat these problems, Light looks to Alexander Hamilton's definition of an energetic executive. As he interprets Hamilton, an energetic federal service has 7 characteristics (perhaps the 7 is a convenient interpretation). They are says Light:

1. Missions that matter
2. Clarity of command
3. Posts of honor (i.e. appointments by merit, not political ties)
4. Vigor and expedition
5. A "Spirit of Service" (the concept of a professional, life time civil service, with formal education, etc.)
6. Steadiness in Administration
7. Safety in the Executive (the ability to hold the executive in check through transparency and accountability).

Although Light gives short descriptions of what these mean, the rest of the book looks at them one by one, and explains exactly how these principles can, properly executed, improve the performance of the federal government. Because the topic of good government is so central to this blog, we'll be looking at them one by one, and asking in future posts how they hold up in light of future challenges.

This last point is especially important because I've found that political science is a great way of explaining what happened in the past, but not always so useful for handling issues that come down the pike in the future. So, we'll take a closer look at Light's thesis in coming weeks and try to analyze their usefulness in meeting the many challenges that will face the next President.

Light contrasts Hamilton's approach with Jefferson, who distrusted a strong federal government and would be all too happy with an inefficient one inadequately financed and resourced. Jefferson saw the executive branch as only one part of a single level of government, and government as only one part of society. Recall, in contrast, to Hamilton the execution of the federal government was the very soul of good government.

Although Light gives Hamilton a place of honor in the book's analytical framework, he still acknowledges Jefferson's contributions and includes them where he thinks appropriate, e.g. a simpler civil service and a greater sense of civic duty.

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