What Washington’s leaders have forgotten

November 14, 2013

Elaine C. Kamarck is the founding director of the Brookings Institution’s newly minted Center for Effective Public Management, which will focus on identifying and solving political and governance challenges in 21st century America. Kamarck, an expert on government innovation and reform in the United States, created the National Performance Review, the largest government reform effort in the last half of the 20th century. She spoke about challenges facing the federal government with Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up their Center for Government Leadership.

Q. What prompted your interest in government and public service?

Elaine Kamarck speaks with Al Gore (photo by Paul Morigi).
Elaine Kamarck speaks with Al Gore (photo by Paul Morigi).

A. My father was a career civil servant at the Social Security Administration during a time when there was a new rush of enthusiasm for the government. He really believed in the government and its mission, and that sentiment passed on to me quite powerfully. In fact, my father wrote the training manual for Medicare in 1965. He used me to see if he was writing clearly enough, so I’m pretty sure that I was the only 15-year old in America who actually knew how to calculate Medicare benefits in 1965.

Q. What are the top goals for the Center for Effective Public Management?

A. The top goal of the organization is to bring management issues into the political conversation. We would like to marry some political insight with policy and management objectives, because that’s not done enough. Looking at the cluster of organizations around Washington, you can see that there are policy organizations and then there are government management organizations. We believe that the best policy in the world will not be any good if you don’t get the politics to work with it. I’m hoping we can open a big conversation on those issues in the next year as we get ourselves off the ground.

Q. What do you consider to be the top management challenges facing the federal government?

A. The first is obviously the Affordable Care Act, which shows how management issues can really screw up a president’s ability to lead. The second issue is the balance between the State and Defense Departments in the conduct of our international relations. There is some sense that this is out of balance following a decade of war. The third challenge is the long-term deficit question. I don’t think that this can be solved by a simple restructure. It will take the modernization of the entitlement portion of our budget. We haven’t been able to give this the attention due because we are too polarized to even talk about it.

Q. What are some shortcomings of the current political leadership? How can this leadership capacity be improved?

A. It’s very simple. Leaders seem to have forgotten how to make deals, forge consensus and understand where the other party is coming from. There is a lot of speculation on why this is occurring, but the fact of the matter is that we have lost the ability to form governing coalitions. It seems that none of our key leaders are capable of doing this, which raises the question: Is this personal or structural? In other words, would a different set of leaders be able to do this better, or is there something that needs to fundamentally change in American politics? While I do not have a direct answer to this question, it’s something we plan on working on at the center.

Q. Do you think this political leadership gap carries over to career executives in government?

A. I don’t think they suffer from the same ideological problem. However, I think the polarizing political class has caused these executives to be stuck in limbo. It’s difficult for them to be proactive when they have to worry about political retribution.

Q. What are some of the consequences of the recent budget reductions?

A. There are two big consequences: planning and training. Training downgrades quickly in a situation like this and so does the ability to plan for the long term. Leaders cannot effectively allocate personnel and equipment needs with the uncertainty of sequestration’s impact on their agency. I think the federal government has a real problem, because it is operating on such a shoestring and in an atmosphere of uncertainty.

Q. How can federal employees help address the public’s low levels of trust in government?

A. Every federal worker who interacts with the public needs to be very cognizant about trying to change the attitude and the rhetoric that exists, and also be very conscious about giving great service to the citizens. One of the ironies about this is when you break down the government into Social Security or Medicare or any of its subcomponents and do customer satisfaction surveys, the government receives good marks. People who actually interact with the government give it a much higher mark than the generic public. So the public in general has this sort of overall view because they lump the politicians, bureaucrats and everybody into one bag. Agency by agency in government, the career employees actually do a very good job. In some agencies, they actually exceed the private sector.

Read also:

Rebuilding trust in government

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Jena McGregor · November 14, 2013