By William Fisher
The year was 1961. The venue was the spacious, deeply carpeted office of the secretary of a major cabinet department – one of the “best and brightest” recruited by the newly installed administration of President John F. Kennedy.
The audience assembled for this morning meeting consisted of the department’s fifty or so most senior officers – those civil servants we refer to as bureaucrats, the ones who stay at their desks regardless of which party wins the White House.
“Good morning,” began the secretary. “I asked you here this morning because I want to share with you – and get your feedback on – a new policy idea I have.” His idea, he said, “has the potential to make a substantial contribution to our economy.”
Then followed fifteen minutes of way-down-in-the-weeds detail. Finally, having laid out his idea, the secretary concluded his presentation with the question, “What do you think?”
After what seemed an endless silence, the most senior audience member rose, cleared his throat, and said:
“That’s a brilliant idea, Mr. Secretary. In fact, I thought it was brilliant when I heard it from Herbert Hoover when he was Secretary of Commerce.”
Next month, similarly unfortunate meetings could be taking place throughout the government. The presenters of the brilliant new ideas will be some of the 3,000-plus political appointees tapped by President Barack Obama to occupy the top leadership positions in our hundreds of Federal departments, agencies and commissions.
Some of them may indeed present truly new ideas. But the chances are good that many of the brainstorms proffered to these career public servants will have been heard before.
Because, in the heady environment of every new administration, it’s all too easy to persuade yourself that you and your fellow appointees have a monopoly on wisdom.
And that means you are about to miss a huge opportunity. Because the career civil service folks who now report to you are the aggregate repositories of centuries of experience. They know where the machinery is and where the skeletons are buried. They are the folks – the only folks -- who know how to turn good policy into good programs that actually work.
Now, aside from peddlers of sub-prime mortgages, contractors who rip off the government, and governors who demand a quid pro quo before funding a children’s hospital, there are probably few groups as savagely maligned as career public servants. We blame them for Katrina. For torture. For failing to police the greed of Wall Street. For disgracing the Justice Department. For invading Iraq. For cozying up to the world’s worst dictators. For giving Osama his get-out-of-jail card.
But our scorn is sadly misplaced. In the vast majority of cases, the failures we seem so ready to attribute to our civil servants are the failures of their leaders – those “best and brightest” appointed by the president.
Now, no administration in our history has ever been immune from appointing a few total disasters to senior posts. But not since George W. Bush won the White House in 2000 have we have witnessed the magnitude of incompetence, indifference, arrogance, cronyism – even criminality – we have suffered during the past eight years.
The clueless “Brownie” of FEMA infamy became emblematic of the failure of leadership – but only emblematic. The Bush Administration had hundreds of Brownies hard at work giving government a bad name. Arguably, that was the only job at which they were wildly successful.
To be fair, however, the staggering mediocrity of the Bushies was not solely the responsibility of the president. Many of W’s nominees were Senate-confirmable, so Congress shares the blame for confirming them, and also for failing to hold them accountable by exercising any meaningful oversight.
Hopefully, the emphasis the Obama transition team has put on the combination of experience, imagination, and solid track records will help to improve the performance of government – at least that part of it the Bushies haven’t outsourced to private contractors.
We should dare to hope that this combination will bring us political appointees who understand that sound policies and exciting programs are worse than useless without solid implementation.
That means leaning heavily on – and really listening to – those who staff those programs -- the implementers. Our career government cadre.
Max Stier of Bloomberg News reminds us of the way Bush 41 addressed this woefully neglected constituency. He wrote:
Just days after his inauguration 20 years ago, the first President Bush gathered hundreds of the government's senior career executives at DAR Constitution Hall to praise their dedication, extol public service and ask for their help in governing.
"I'm coming to you as president and offering my hand in partnership. I'm asking you to join me as full members of our team. I promise to lead and to listen, and I promise to serve beside you as we work together to carry out the will of the American people," Bush said. "Our principles are clear: that government service is a noble calling and a public trust."
Obama, Stier wrote, “has signaled his own strong commitment to fostering public service -- to "make government cool again." As he begins his presidency, it would be smart for him to follow George H.W. Bush's example, personally meeting with senior civil service executives to explain his priorities, set expectations, and let them know their expertise and hard work will be needed to meet the many daunting challenges ahead.”
Except that this job is too big for the president to tackle alone -- our government currently has about 1.8 million civilian employees. So this becomes a task for every one of Barack Obama’s political appointees -- and it can be a richly rewarding task.
Because the men and women of our career public service are weary of being the Bush Administration’s scapegoats. They are eager to be motivated, trained to perform to the highest standards, and ready to be held accountable.
Enlightened leadership can make “Yes We Can” their mantra too.