Accountable Strategies blog

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

Posts Tagged ‘Obama administration’

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,, 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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The politicized presidency

Posted by David Kassel on August 9, 2010

Using the term “politicized presidency” might sound at first like an exercise in redundancy.

What presidency isn’t politicized?  But Donald Moynihan and Alasdair Roberts draw a distinction between “politicized” and “political.” 

In “The Triumph of Loyalty Over Competence: The Bush Administration and the Exhaustion of the Politicized Presidency”  (July/August 2010 issue of Public Administration Review), the authors make a case that the administration of George W. Bush went further than any others in history in subordinating hiring and decision-making to political considerations.

The result was a disaster, not only for Bush’s popularity toward the end of his second term and potentially for his legacy, but for the institution of the presidency itself.

The question the authors leave unanswered is how far the Obama administration intends to go, or has gone, to de-politicize the office of the presidency.  They point out that Barack Obama made an early effort to avoid shows of excessive partisanship, particularly in his decision to retain a Bush appointee, Robert Gates, as secretary of defense.  But politicization of the presidency may only be in remission, they say.

I would suggest that in one respect, Obama appears to have shown the same impulse as Bush and other recent presidents; and that is the impulse to reduce the power of career bureaucrats though privatization of governmental functions.  (See Rick Cohen’s interesting series in The Nonprofit Quarterly on the Obama administration’s push for more privatization and free-market approaches in public housing services, education, and other governmental functions.) 

It may not be the case that Obama is pushing privatization for the same political-loyalty-inspired reasons as Bush.  But that may not make a lot of difference to the career employees who lose their jobs as a result.

Moynihan and Roberts state that starting with Andrew Jackson, the decision to politicize a presidency has been connected with a distrust of the federal bureaucracy and of career employees, who are seen as hostile to presidential goals because of professional and ideological biases.  

They suggest at least three basic characteristics of a politicized presidency: 1) Expansion of the number of political appointees in the administration, with more weight given to loyalty than merit in hiring; 2) the transfer or termination of career officials in the bureaucracy who are deemed untrustworthy; and 3) the centralization of key decision-making in the White House.

It would be hard for Obama to top George W. Bush in the politicization arena.  Moynihan’s and Roberts’ article doesn’t provide new disclosures about  Bush.   But they put enough examples together that the case against the Bush presidency appears fairly persuasive.  We still clearly remember the debacle of the appointment of Michael Brown to head FEMA, for instance.  Brown and other senior appointees in FEMA lacked emergency management expertise, the authors note, but had “significant political campaign experience.”

Then there were the forced resignations of the U.S. Attorneys and the hiring at DoJ of politically connected yet inexperienced personnel such as Kyle Sampson, a classmate of Vice President Dick Cheney’s daughter, and Monica Goodling, who had been an opposition researcher for the Republican National Committee.  

Moynihan and Roberts also recount the case of Bradley Schlozman, a political appointee at the DoJ’s Civil Rights Division, who apparently had high-level personnel hiring and firing responsibilities there.   In email comments, Schlozman repeatedly referred to conservative applicants as “real Americans.”  He also wrote, regarding existing employees, that, “My tentative plans are to gerrymander all of those crazy libs right out of the section.”  He apparently had quite a bit of success in doing so.

And then there were the political considerations that colored the hiring of staff to manage the U.S. reconstruction efforts in Iraq.   Moynihan and Roberts rely heavily here on Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s excellent book, “Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone,” for details on the White House’s insistence that job applicants in the reconstruction management effort be screened for loyalty to the Republican Party and the president.

As I point out in my own book, Managing Public Sector Projects,” the Iraq reconstruction has been marred by poor to nonexistent planning, shoddy and delayed project work, and a failure to properly account for billions of dollars in U.S. taxpayer money spent there.

In addition to hiring politically connected personnel, there is also the “assault on rationality in decision making” that the Bush administration engaged in as part of its politicization efforts.  These ranged from alterations by the EPA of scientific reports on climate change to opposition by the Food and Drug Administration to the vaccination of young women against the human papillomavirus, the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States.

Moynihan’s and Roberts’ article might be no more than an interesting discussion of recent history, were it not that they ask the larger question whether the politicized presidency is on the wane or in remission.  The article also started me wondering whether some of the characteristics of politicization may have also spread to the private sector.

In today’s highly competitive job market, we hear, for instance, about applicants “dumbing down” their resumes in order to persuade potential employers that they won’t leave for higher-level opportunities when the economy improves.  In other words, are employers looking these days–as the Bush administration did a few years ago– for loyalty over expertise and experience?

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Drilling and nuclear power are neither safe nor clean

Posted by David Kassel on May 3, 2010

[Cross-posted from Blue Mass. Group]

If there is one overriding lesson we can take from the ongoing oil rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, it’s that safety claims about energy technologies are likely to be empty.

I’m talking about both drilling for oil off shore and nuclear power.  In recent months, both of these technologies have been characterized by their industry proponents as “safe” and “clean” because of advances in technology.  That safety claim was seized upon by President Obama, who has called for a renewed emphasis on developing both off-shore oil drilling and nuclear power as part of our nation’s energy policy.

Obama has specifically used the words “safe”  and “clean” in describing both nuclear and drilling technologies.

Announcing his off-shore oil drilling expansion plans on March 31,  Obama said:

I want to emphasize that this announcement is part of a broader strategy that will move us from an economy that runs on fossil fuels and foreign oil to one that relies on homegrown fuels and clean energy.

On February 16, in announcing his plan to expand nuclear power, the president said:

My budget proposes tripling the loan guarantees we provide to help finance safe, clean nuclear facilities – and we’ll continue to provide financing for clean-energy projects…across America.

Yet, even as Obama was announcing his plan for the expansion of nuclear power, his own Nuclear Regulatory Commission was warning that the latest technology for housing nuclear reactors is far from safe.  The Westinghouse design for the two reactors in Georgia that received the first loan guarantees announced by the president may not be durable enough to withstand earthquakes, hurricanes, or a direct airplane hit, the NRC stated.

Of course, we are now witnessing the growing natural disaster along the Louisiana coastline caused by the explosion of an oil drilling rig that boasted the latest “safe” technology.

It’s understandable that the president felt he needed to make concessions regarding oil drilling and nuclear power to conservatives in Congress in order to gain their support for his proposed legislation dealing with climate change.  But the disaster in the Gulf shows the price of that GOP support is too high to pay.

The president needs to rethink his plans for expansion of both off-shore drilling and nuclear power.  We can’t afford disasters in either of those realms, and we can no longer fool ourselves into thinking they can’t happen.

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