As if Jared Kushner didn’t have enough to do in between managing his father-in-law’s political impulses on climate change and benefits for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender federal employees and brokering peace in the Middle East, another perpetually Sisyphean task landed on his desk on Monday. Every president since Ronald Reagan has vowed to make the federal government run with the efficiency and attention to excellent results and customer service the business world is supposed to possess. As much as President Trump can be said to have any fixed beliefs, he believes in himself as a businessman and dealmaker, which makes this pledge particularly close to the core of his identity and his campaign. And so Kushner has been tapped to lead “a SWAT team of strategic consultants.”
With all due respect to the genuinely good intention behind the idea that the federal government could do more to better serve its constituents, and with all due skepticism for the idea that the Trump administration has any unique insight into business or government, all I can say is: Good luck. Genuinely making government work better isn’t going to be easy.
Part of the reason it’s difficult to conduct the many, many functions of the federal government in accordance with business principles is that the federal government is not a business, at least not in the profit-driven sense that Trump has typically touted his own success.
Among the differences, points out Partnership for Public Service President Max Stier, who welcomes the prospect of an innovation initiative based out of the White House, is that federal agencies have become accustomed to working without predictable budgets. “There’s no business that could actually operate under those constraints,” he says.
And measuring the performance of federal agencies is complicated in the best of circumstances, because, as Stier puts it, “Government’s pursuing the public good,” rather than a simpler metric such as profit.
Even the Internal Revenue Service, which collects the money due to the federal government, has as its stated mission — adopted under President Clinton as part of a larger agency reorganization — helping Americans “understand and meet their tax responsibilities” and making sure the country’s tax laws are applied “with integrity and fairness to all.” (The previous statement emphasized collecting “the proper amount of tax revenue at the least cost.”) Citizenship and oversight can’t be marketed like Trump steaks or Trump wine, but they’re some of the many things the government produces.
The good that one agency aims to provide — say, offering excellent health care to veterans — might be radically different from the goal another department is pursuing — for example, landing a craft on Mars without bringing any biological contaminants from Earth. Improving customer service at the Department of Veterans Affairs might be a case where a federal agency could improve its performance by adopting the technology and practices of best-in-class businesses, the sort of improvement Stier says government ought to aspire to. But even if Kushner’s strike team is able to develop useful measurements for whether the VA improves the speed at which it provides treatments to veterans, and whether those treatments produce excellent outcomes to the veterans who receive them (which itself would be a difficult task), that still leaves thousands of other government functions to assess and improve.
There is also a very sharp difference between freeing federal agencies to act like aggressive, agile businesses and changing or dismantling what federal agencies do so their work serves the interests of private businesses. The latter idea seems to have guided the Trump administration’s selection of people who have contempt for the mission of the agencies they are supposed to lead for important executive branch positions (Rick Perry had suggested the Energy Department, which he was tapped to lead, be abolished). Dismantling — or “deconstructing,” in the words of Trump senior strategist Stephen K. Bannon — an agency is not the same thing as improving its performance. Actually managing an agency is much more challenging than gutting it.
Just as the Trump administration would be wise to set its goals carefully, it would be smart for voters to look closely at the supposed business savvy that Trump and Kushner actually bring to this enterprise. Shortly before Trump was inaugurated, he paid out a $25 million settlement in a case that alleged his Trump University courses were worthless. The Trump Taj Mahal closed in Atlantic City, N.J., during the final lap of the 2016 presidential race. The Trump Organization built a nonsensically located hotel in Azerbaijan. 666 Fifth Avenue, which the Kushner Companies purchased in 2006 for a then-record price, has a higher vacancy rate than office buildings in the New York metropolitan area do as a whole.
Even if Trump and Kushner’s business records actually matched up to Trump’s rhetoric, their work in the public sector wouldn’t necessarily have prepared them them to take the latest crack at reinventing government. The brand-licensing and high-end hotel businesses don’t have much in common with managing an addiction epidemic or retraining former industrial employees for a radically different economy. The federal government rents lots of office space, but developing rental housing and skyscrapers, as Kushner did before getting into politics, is a rather different task even in the real estate world. “Business” isn’t a magical incantation that can work the same magic in every situation.
“The truth is,” Stier says, “that managing government is harder than managing a business.” And when presidents try to transform government, it often ends up transforming and humbling them.