Since news broke that Jared Kushner will lead an effort to make government more efficient, I’ve been asked the same three questions over and over. First, isn’t this what Al Gore did with “Reinventing Government”? Second, didn’t that fail? And third, won’t this fail, also?
No, nope . . . and probably.
Every recent president has launched an effort to employ learning from management experts, scholars and business leaders to improve the functioning of government. The one led by Gore is perhaps the most famous of these; the most recent was President Barack Obama’s U.S. Digital Service — which brought top private-sector talent from Silicon Valley to Washington. Is President Trump’s new “Office of American Innovation,” to be led by first son-in-law Kushner, similar to these earlier efforts? I think not, for reasons set out below.
Before analyzing the differences, however, it’s worth asking: Are these predecessors worthy of emulation? The bottom line is that while none “fixed government,” several did have impressive achievements. Gore’s Reinventing Government program (ReGo) launched electronic filing of taxes, slashed the time it takes to get a passport and created the first portals for citizens to do business with the Social Security Administration online. It trimmed 400,000 people from the federal payroll and saved taxpayers billions. As Paul C. Light, a leading expert in public administration, said of ReGo, Gore’s initiative proved “that government can get better.”
Obama’s Digital Service tackled similar challenges in the Internet age. It drew on a cadre of talented engineers and designers from Google, Facebook, Twitter and other tech titans who were asked to help fix the beleaguered HealthCare.gov website and then stayed on to tackle other challenges. In addition to helping millions get health-care coverage online, USDS built a mobile app to help students refinance loans, improved cyber defense at the Pentagon and digitized large portions of our immigration system.
Will Kushner’s effort follow in these footsteps? Since its unveiling Monday, the Office of American Innovation has faced a wave of skepticism. Some of this criticism — doubts based on Kushner’s scant business record or Trump’s many private-sector failures — seem like cheap shots. I don’t question whether a Trump-Kushner effort could achieve the kind of results that Clinton-Gore and Obama produced — but I seriously doubt that it will, for four reasons.
First, for any such effort to be serious, it needs serious full-time leadership. For most of Gore’s tenure, ReGo was led by the brilliant Elaine Kamarck, a scholar of public administration and government reform; under Obama, USDS was led by Mikey Dickerson, a star Google engineer. But Kushner is taking on this project in addition to duties bringing peace to the Middle East, being a senior counselor to the president and negotiating a new trade deal with Mexico. Transforming the performance of even a small entity is herculean work; tackling it for the federal government is far more than a full-time job. Given everything else on Kushner’s to-do list, it’s hard to believe that this new role is anything more than a photo op.
Second, there is reason to suspect that the Office of American Innovation is just a front for an effort to peel away environmental, health, safety and consumer-protection rules in the name of making government more efficient. Kushner has emphasized that his new office will work with corporate chief executives — leaders who are (understandably) more likely to make requests for regulatory relief than get into thorny issues of improving government efficiency. Of course, private-sector leaders are free to seek regulatory changes, and there’s nothing wrong with their government hearing them out — but dressing that up as an effort to make government run better is a bait-and-switch.
Third, any serious effort to improve government has to begin with working with the existing government employees: the federal civil service. Sure, there are some truculent and inefficient government workers; but in my four stints in the White House, I never met people more dedicated to finding better ways to do things than the civil servants with whom I worked on projects such as the Recovery Act and the Ebola response. Trump and his administration, however, are openly contemptuous of this workforce and view it with suspicious hostility. Ask any of the executives working with the White House if they could reinvent their companies without the active and engaged support of their employees. Not one would say yes.
Fourth, and most important, there is no way to make the government more efficient if you don’t believe in the government and what it does. Trump has already announced that his goal is to collapse Obamacare; should we expect Kushner’s Innovation Office to build on USDS work to make HealthCare.gov better and faster? Will Kushner really focus on fixing the veterans’ health-care system — or boost Republican efforts to privatize it? Does he want to find new ways to track and report environmental risks — or is the goal to make it easier to pollute? Trump strategist Stephen K. Bannon’s stated mission of “deconstructing” the government is at odds with any genuine effort to “reconstruct” it — and it’s easy to guess which is the true aim of the White House.
The night that The Post first reported on the Innovation Office, I glibly tweeted that I had a simpler two-point plan to improve governing under President Trump: “(1) Hire some people who know what they are doing; (2) Work harder.” Mr. Kushner, it’s not too late to give it a try.