Can government still tackle the big challenges?

Monday - 10/10/2011, 10:21am EDT

Dwight Ink, National Academy of Public Administration

Download mp3

By Jack Moore
Federal News Radio

The government is as big and ambitious and employs as many people as it ever has. But more and more, it faces charges that it can't get anything right.

The National Academy of Public Administration has published a new book on public service, Transforming American Governance: Rebooting the Public Square.

Dwight Ink, a longtime career federal employee who served seven president and has been ranked as one of the top 20 civil servants in history, co-edited the volume.

He joined the Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Amy Morris to discuss the book, which argues that while government has gotten better at everyday processes, it still falls far short of tackling the big challenges.

Losing the capacity to lead?

It doesn't take much to see why the public has lost so much confidence in government, Ink said, citing the inept Katrina recovery, the "confusion" surrounding the Gulf oil spill last spring and the long frustrating years of Iraqi reconstruction.

"And, certainly, everyone is very, very concerned about our inability to lead effectively with the fiscal crisis that we're confronted with. And future challenges will probably be much more difficult in a globalized, competitive world," he added.

Ink said the government has taken strides in improving everyday processes. But that has only "obscured the fact that we've lost this capacity to deal with large undertakings."

And Ink, who served every president from Dwight Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan, knows about tackling those big challenges.

He oversaw what Government Executive described as the "antithesis of Katrina" — a large-scale government success story.

Tasked by President Lyndon Johnson with the cleanup efforts of the 1964 Good Friday earthquake that devastated Alaska, Ink said the federal government was perhaps better positioned to deal with that crisis than subsequent ones.

Within 48 hours of the quake, the Office of Management and Budget (which Ink said had a "strong management component, then) stood up a "very strong, very simple organization" to deal with clean-up, something the "huge, cumbersome," Homeland Security Department would be hard-pressed to do today.

In another contrast with today's hyper-partisan times, he said, the special recovery team had special arrangements with Congress and even shared staff with it.

"I was given tacit authority by both the president and members of Congress — at least the key committees — to modify or suspend any federal agency regulation or process that got in the way of our meeting our very, very strict targets for reconstruction," Ink said.

Restoring management roots

Ink said those lessons from the past offer an antidote to today's inability to handle the big stuff, and represent some of the book's most important recommendations.

OMB must restore its management roots — what Ink called its "capacity for organization."

But along with that strengthened role is also a reminder that it complement — not compete — with the role played by departments, he said.

Then, there's the rather thorny issue of dealing with an often recalcitrant Congress.

The most effective way to do that may be for the Executive Branch to get its own house in order, Ink suggested.

"We need to remember and restore how to deal with Congress," he said. "Congress has serious problems, but we don't know, any longer, how to deal effectively in the field of management.

The career workforce also need strengthening, he said.

"We need much greater reliance on career leaders in the operations of our government. We're layering them over with more political appointees all the time," he said, which makes it difficult for career civil servants to function effectively and provide decisionmakers with objective advice.

He said he's recommending a presidential commission to look at the way that political appointees affect agency and departmental operations — both positively and negatively, he said.

"I think we ought to look at the impact of this layering of political appointees," he added, "and how it has affected both the opportunity for career people to develop."

RELATED STORY

Examining the book 'Transforming American Governance'