Accountable Strategies blog

A blog about accountability issues in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors

The value of our public employees

Posted by David Kassel on March 3, 2011

The battles over collective bargaining in Wisconsin and now Ohio are raising questions about how much we value our public employees and recognize that the work they do matters.

It has taken these standoffs in these state capitols to bring a needed focus on the effects of years of public sector downsizing and denigration of public servants at all levels of government by Republicans and Democrats alike.

In an article in the January/February issue of Public Administration Review, Phillip Cooper, a professor at the Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University, makes the case that even President Obama has a lot to learn in this regard.  In “The Duty to Take Care: President Obama, Public Administration, and the Capacity to Govern,” Cooper argues that the president still doesn’t appear to understand the degree to which his own exeutive branch has been stripped of its capacity to manage the nation’s public business and “faithfully execute the laws.”

Obama, Cooper says, is a talented politician and leader who came to office with major policy ideas and a plan to improve government performance by using technology, in particular.   All of these things require a commitment of resources,  including expertise, planning and coordination, by public agencies and their employees.

Yet, due to the “the actions and inactions of his predecessors of both political parties,”  President Obama “has inherited a capacity crisis that will stand in the way of the accomplishment of his constitutional duty and the obligations of the federal government,”  Cooper writes.   It’s a capacity crisis of which the president “has not demonstrated an awareness.”

Moreover, during his campaign for the presidency and after taking office, Obama has used what Cooper characterizes as “unhelpful rhetoric” regarding public employees such as talking about “bloated bureaucracies” in Washington and promising to cut the budget deficit significantly by eliminating “too many layers of managers” and excessive paperwork.  Whether you agree or not that there is significant waste and inefficiency in the public sector, this is the type of rhetoric that has driven the downsizing of government and the increased outsourcing of government functions since the 1970’s.

Cooper notes that the result of this continual downsizing has been a loss of capacity in the executive branch — and the regulatory agencies, in particular — to function effectively.   Government downsizing began in the 1970s;  and Cooper tracks this trend from the Carter administration through Bush 2.  During this same period of time, he points out, work demands on these agencies increased substantially.

By 2003, the Government Accountability Office was reporting that contracting out of public functions had risen dramatically across federal agencies while the federal workforce available to manage those contracts had decreased just as dramatically.   Failures in government performance began to mount  — notably, the poor contract management of the U.S. reconstruction effort in Iraq and managerial fiascos in the Department of Homeland Security and in the response to Hurricane Katrina.

In my own book, “Managing Public Sector Projects: A Strategic Framework for Success in an Era of Downsized Government,” I discuss some of the consequences of this downsizing at the federal and state levels, from the lack of control over Big Dig project in Boston to the government’s reliance on contractors themselves to manage other contracts in Iraq.  (I sent a copy of the book to the White House, by the way.)

Cooper discusses a number of President Obama’s policy initiatives since taking office, including his advocacy of the economic stimulus package that emerged from Congress as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), and his health reform law and Wall Street reform legislation.  Each of those policy initiatives requires effective and coordinated management by public agencies, including “massive service delivery, payment and regulatory systems,” which simply don’t exist at the present time.  Moreover, key appointments to high-level administrative posts that could help bring about that coordination were delayed for months.

Cooper notes, in particular, a 10-month delay by the Obama administration in naming a director of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, an agency vital to the effective management of ARRA.  There were also significant delays in naming directors of the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, an agency critical in addressing failures in the regulatory system.

Even President Obama’s laudable initiatives to improve transparency in government through the introduction of new websites on agency performance were not carefully implemented or effectively staffed, Cooper maintains.  For instance, Grants.gov, a website intended to track grant applications and spending, was quickly overloaded by ARRA expenditures and faced the possibility of a shutdown.

Cooper concludes that:

The capacity challenge is…sufficiently grave, not only across the federal government but throughout the intergovernmental system, that it requires serious and direct presidential attention and commitment. 

Thus far, we haven’t seen that commitment from this White House.  Let’s hope we do, and that it ultimately affects all levels of government.  A real commitment by this president to restoring the government’s capacity to function effectively would go a long way toward achieving the goals for which thousands of people are now fighting in Wisconsin and Ohio.

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