Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Inmates are Running the Asylum

The Washington Post's editorial page sounds a worried note after a conservative Republican lost his primary bid for not being quite conservative enough (i.e. he had voted for TARP and had co-sponsored a relatively moderate health care reform proposal with a Democrat) and a Democrat from West Virginia who had shown a willingness to compromise on greenhouse gas regulation lost as well.  In short, two fairly well respected Members who were willing to work with others on compromises lost to candidates who made it clear that compromise was not in their vocabulary:
For many party cleansers, working across party lines constitutes treason. We agree that elected officials ought to be guided by principles that they are willing to fight for. But we also see a difference between fidelity to principle and dogmatism. If Republicans cannot accept that Democrats may make some reasonable arguments, and vice versa, then nothing will get done
I normally don't blog on electoral politics, but this trend has obvious implications for governance if Members of Congress believe that the only way to keep their seats is to scream across the aisle rather than actually governing.  In future posts, I hope to look at what institutional reforms can be made to keep parties from becoming hostages to their most extreme elements.

Because, right now, the inmates are running the asylum in both parties.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The New Prime Minister

It hasn't taken as long as some feared for Britain to get a new government.  Conservative leader David Cameron and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg have formed a coalition government (the first since the end of World War II apparently) between the two parties, with the Conservatives getting most of the leading offices given that they won the largest number of votes.  But Clegg will serve as the Deputy Prime Minister and several other top government posts will go to Liberal Democrat MPs.

Interestingly, one of their first moves will be to enact legislation fixing the term of Parliament at 5 years.  Under current law, a Parliament may last up to 5 years, but a Prime Minister may dissolve Parliament, thereby causing an election, earlier if he or she chooses.  The move may help to solidify the coalition (allaying Liberal Democrat fears that the Conservatives would call new elections once their polling looked better, gain a majority, and kick them out) but it also seems like good government (prohibiting a politically motivated call for a new election by the party in power for the purposes of political advantage.

Still, this could have profound effects on the entire British political system, and render it looking much more like that of the U.S. in several ways.

For example, suppose the Prime Minister loses the majority.  Would Britain be stuck with a prime minister who lacks majority support in the Parliament?  If so, it could come to resemble the US system, where the President and Congress frequently do not come from the same party, a little bit more.

More importantly, it would also likely end the tradition of short, inexpensive campaigns because candidates will know exactly when the elections will be and can start campaigning earlier than the usual 30 day window from when the PM announces an election and when it takes place.  Such a change may wind up with very profound effects.  As a result of longer, more expensive campaigns, voters may wind up paying less attention and fewer going to the polls.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Learning the Right Lessons Part II

Learning the right lessons from a failure is the first step towards improving future performance, in life, in business and especially in government.  As we discussed earlier, the most important aspect of the government's oversight of the safety of offshore drilling rigs may have been the merger of two conflicting tasks, safety and revenue collection, in the same agency.

The AP is now reporting that the administration is looking into splitting the Minerals Management Services into two different agencies centered around these very different tasks.  As we learned last week, the British took a similar step years ago, and improved their safety record as well.  Even if the Wall Street Journal didn't seem to get it quite right when it wrote its headline, Department of Interior Ken Salazar seems to understand.

The Federal Workforce - Faster Hiring

Federal employment rules are an embarrassing anachronism.  They were created for a time when the government was smaller, its duties much more limited, and the typical functions were routinized ones, such as typing and filing.  One aspect of this is the incredibly long time it takes to hire anyone.  A short summary of the issue can be found here.

At least one aspect of this operation appears headed for improvement.  Today's Washington Post reports that President Obama is ordering the feds to step up hiring.

This is welcome news.  The federal government needs to replace a lot of workers who are scheduled to retire soon.  In 2008 the Partnership for Public Service projects over one-third of the Senior Executive Service (SES), which constitutes the core leadership of the civil service will retire.  We need to keep a steady flow of quality candidates coming through the pipeline merely to maintain the government's capacity.  Whether you're a fan of "big government" or not, a government with big responsibilities but without the resources to carry them out is a failed government, and something that would benefit no one.  A long, complicated hiring process deters people from entering the pool, reducing the overall quality of the federal workforce.

Some of the changes include ditching government - only forms and requirements (a problem not only in hiring but many other aspects of government such as contracting) in lieu of more traditional applications and resumes and allowing agencies to hire someone who had applied for a position at another one in the same department (but not across departments, which would require an Act of Congress).

Now, let's talk about (a) making promotions and salary increases based more on merit and less on seniority and (b) getting rid of poor performers.