President Bush invoked the B-word this week, after a Cabinet meeting on rescue and recovery efforts in the Gulf Coast region following Hurricane Katrina. The president told reporters:
"Bureaucracy's not going to stand in the way of getting the job done for the people."
Many politicians blame bureaucracy when the going gets tough. After all, it's a vague, easy target that presents a way to avoid grappling with contentious issues, such as what agency leaders -- particularly political appointees -- did to plan for a disaster and how they performed in a crisis.
Bush was more direct Sept. 3, before perceptions hardened that the Department of Homeland Security, and especially the Federal Emergency Management Agency, had failed to respond quickly to Katrina. He said, "The results are not acceptable."
In various forums, Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill and the White House have promised to conduct investigations and fix whatever is wrong at Homeland Security. Until we know more about the response to Katrina, it may be useful to look at one of the hard truths facing leaders in the federal government: that problems often are interconnected and have to be solved simultaneously.
Robert D. Behn, who teaches at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, made this very point in a recent issue of his "Public Management Report."
Behn takes a cue from the novel "Anna Karenina" and Tolstoy's famous observation: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
Happy families solve complex problems, and that is what effective agencies must do, Behn writes. The leaders of agencies, Behn says, must clearly address fundamental challenges, and he offers his abridged list:
* The Macro-Purpose Problem: What is the agency's mission?
* The Strategy Problem: What has to be done to accomplish the mission?
* The Theory Problem: How will the strategy work?
* The Measurement Problem: How does the agency know it is doing a good job?
* The Target Problem: What indicators help measure progress and how much progress should be made in a specific time period?
* The Communications Problem: How do you convince employees and the public that all this makes sense?
* The Resources Problem: Is there enough money to make progress?
* The Motivation Problem: How do you persuade employees and partners to carry out the plan with energy and intelligence?
* The Learning Problem: What must be done this year to get better next year?
* The Credibility Problem: How do you win the confidence of others that the mission is being accomplished?
"Unfortunately, if an agency's leaders fail to solve any single one of these problems, they are condemning the agency to ineffectiveness," Behn writes.
For example, he says: "An agency's leaders cannot solve their strategy problem without also solving their theory problem. They cannot solve their credibility and resources problems without solving their communication problem."
Multiple, interconnected problems, Behn suggests, help explain why agency leaders face demanding and unforgiving jobs.
It probably also helps explain why workers in numerous agencies feel beleaguered and, perhaps, unhappy.
Clay Johnson III, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, will discuss the future of the civil service on "FEDtalk" at 11 a.m. today on federalnewsradio.com and WFED radio (1050 AM).
Susan Grant, chief financial officer at the Energy Department, will be the guest on "The IBM Business of Government Hour" at 9 a.m. tomorrow on WJFK radio (106.7 FM).
"Freedom Walk and Katrina Volunteers" will be the topics of discussion on the Imagene B. Stewart call-in program at 8 a.m. Sunday on WOL radio (1450 AM).