Saturday, September 27, 2008

A Government Ill Executed - Clarity of Command

(Note: this is part of an ongoing discussion of Paul Light's book A Government Ill Executed. Other posts on this book can be accessed by clicking the tag below)

In his second chapter of A Government Ill Executed, Paul Light looks at the current composition of the federal work force, the trends, and what they imply for the ability of the federal government to operate proficiently.

Noting that his 2nd characteristic of of an energetic federal service is clarity of command, Light thinks this is one area where Hamilton nods to Jefferson. Hamilton, as Secretary of the the Treasury, was noted for the details of his orders, down to the armaments that would be on each Coast Guard cutter. "Nothing was too trivial for his attention," says Light. In addition, the federal government work force is undergoing with Light calls "thickening," which refers to the addition of more and more layers between those who run the agencies and those on the front line who execute policy and gain the insight as to what's really happening on the ground.

Additional layers are the result of two things, says Light. The first is additional missions that bring with them their own bureaucracy. The second is the misperception that more leaders equals better leadership. Instead of just a Secretary and a couple of Assistant Secretaries overseeing the civil service, we now have so many layers, especially of political appointees, that we now have people with titles that can barely fit on a business card: "Associate Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary." Modern developments along these lines include a proliferation of "Chief of Staff"s and C-level (e.g., Chief Financial Officer, Chief Acquisition Officer, etc.) to further confuse the thicken the executive branch hierarchy.

As a result, communication of what is expected from the top to the bottom becomes obscured and makes it all the more difficult for the President to get his agenda enacted. Also, key information from the "front lines" never gets to the decision makers at the top. Accordingly, we get faulty government responses to crisis like Hurricane Katrina, doubts about weapons of mass destruction never get aired at the level where decisions are made, and safety concerns about the space shuttle getting lost.

We also have a problem when we consider this with the broken confirmation system we'll discuss later. Because so many offices remain vacant for long periods of time, important information and decisions sit on empty desks. The more layers, the more opportunities for this to occur.

The key is to reverse this trend, says Light, "thin the system."

In this respect, Light looks to Jefferson rather than Hamilton for inspiration. Hamilton believed in highly prescriptive edicts that would filter down through a broad chain of civil servants. Jefferson believed in delegation, following broad principles rather than detailed orders and the use of informal communication over normal bureaucratic modes. Light noted that Jefferson understood that with new missions come new bureaucracy, which obscures clarity of command. Although the often start out flat, they have a tendency to thicken over time he observed.

While Light does a masterful job of describing the problem and the reasons for its evolution, he is much less enlightening on how to thin the federal government. He notes that most Presidents since Carter have understood the problem and endeavored to correct it, but little has been accomplished on this front other than cosmetically.

A few thoughts. First, a "thick" federal bureaucracy seems to be another price we pay for too many missions in addition to not having enough resources as we discussed earlier. Second, it's important to realize than "thinning" the government in this regard doesn't mean cutting workers but rather flattening so that information from the front lines goes through fewer hands on its way to the Oval Office.

Reforming the civil service in this way is clearly important, but it will require a big overhaul that will meet with fierce opposition from government employees and the unions that represent them. Perhaps one helpful step would be for the next President not to appoint someone to every box on the org chart. That would mean abstaining from awarding a "plum" however (and the political juice it creates for him). It's unclear whether that's asking too much.

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