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Light on Leadership

The silver lining in a partisan hurricane

Democrats are reeling these days as they confront an electoral disaster. They have been easily branded as the protectors of big, bad government--and at a time when Republicans have turned the election into a referendum on the federal bureaucracy.

But the truth is, neither party has done much to push for bureaucratic reform. Republicans have yet to advance an ambitious agenda for making government work, and have been studiously silent about cuts in the big-ticket deficit drivers embedded in Social Security, Medicare and the 2001 tax cuts. Their briefly advertised pledge to America has disappeared from the political landscape, leaving federal pay and hiring freezes as their only hammer.

At the same time, Democrats have yet to embrace an alternative. They seem unwilling to tell the public that pay and hiring freezes would further degrade government's ability to inspect oil rigs, police food and drugs, collect and sort intelligence, curb the greed on Wall Street and restore a semblance of public confidence in the faithful execution of laws. They have also been unable to admit that the federal bureaucracy can do better. They are in a defensive crouch, with almost nothing to say about big-ticket bureaucratic reforms that might actually help the federal government work more effectively.

This dismal election season may yet produce a silver lining, however. If Republicans retake the House, they will be under enormous pressure to offer something more substantial than a trivial cut in federal pay and headcount. Democrats will have similar incentives to do something more than offer double-sided copying as their lead bureaucratic reform. Both parties might just have to find a bipartisan answer to the big-government question.

The answer will not be found in shrinking the federal workforce or trimming pay, though there is good reason to move resources from the top of the bureaucracy down to the bottom, which has been decimated over the past 20 years. Rather, the answer lies in a sustained effort to make the federal bureaucracy into a much more accountable, productive and efficient agent for delivering the goods and services most Americans say they want.

It has now been 60 years since the last significant campaign to address the cumbersome systems and structures that inhibit high-performance government. The effort was led by none other than then-former Republican president Herbert Hoover and his blue-ribbon Commission on Organization of the Executive Branch of the Government. Although Hoover is best remembered by most Americans for his deer-in-headlights response as the Great Depression took hold, he was actually a master public administrator. His real passion later in life was making government work better, which he most certainly did.

Hoover was called to the task by the Republican Congress that created the commission and the Democratic president who appointed it. Having battled one partisan stalemate after another as the Cold War began, both parties came together in common cause. Both understood that government was broken, and they actually found a moment for bipartisan action. Although the effort was steeped initially in partisanship, courageous leaders from both parties acknowledged that something had to be done to restore public confidence in government.

It is not too late for Democrats and Republicans to make the same commitment again. Obama may be bored to tears by bureaucracy, but surely he must understand that his party's impending doom stems in part from the cascade of doubts created by recent meltdowns. And Republicans may be feasting on anti-government sentiment, but surely they must understand the public's demand for better performance.

President Jimmy Carter had it right in 1976 when he promised a government as good as the people, but Democrats and Republicans alike seem to forget the power of his promise. If it was good enough to take a peanut farmer to the White House, perhaps it could be good enough to energize a bipartisan effort to actually do something big about big government.

The first President Bush seems to be the logical choice for the job. Let the new Republican House create the commission, then let Obama call Bush to the task. There will be plenty of opportunities for partisan bickering in the coming two years regardless of who wins in November, but making government work could be a crowning achievement for both parties and a very real gift to the American people. Obama just might close the enthusiasm gap his own party is experiencing by making the proposal and daring Republicans to say "yes."

By Paul Light

 |  October 21, 2010; 1:32 PM ET |  Category:  Crisis leadership , Federal government leadership , Public leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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A quiet call in the dark for increased effectiveness from our Federal Government. Yes, there needs to be far fewer people at the top and more people at the bottom. Before I retired from Federal Service, I saw the watchers of work at staff units significantly increase, while the doers of work at line units (where they meet the public and deal with their issues) decrease.
All this eventually does is require line management to give the staff people whatever numbers are in vogue at the moment, while the public is poorly served.

Posted by: kamdog | October 27, 2010 7:45 PM

The idea behind a review on its surface sounds enticing. But there are some serious reservations. One is that George W. Bush may simply not be up to the task that Paul Light would give him. A better proposal might be to team him with co-chair Al Gore, the man who was denied the presidency in 2001 by the Republican Supreme Court majority and the leader of Reinventing Government during the Clinton Administration.

Another reservation is that many Tea Party Republicans have sent signals that they have absolutely no intention of working with President Obama. Those of this ilk also hold former President Bush in contempt. They have indicated they are on a mission to subvert the federal government as it has been under both Democrats and so-called establishment Republicans. Will this commission be embraced by Tom Coburn or Jim DeMint or will they trash it like they have trashed everything since coming to Washington?

Finally, coming from Paul Light, I can't help but wonder if he isn't angling for a role in all this for himself.

Posted by: Viewpoint2 | October 27, 2010 6:18 PM

The Republicans have had two enormous opporunities in the past 30 years to cut the size of government. They don't want to!!!

1980 - 1992 resulted in no downsizing or efficiency increases. It did, however, result in the 2nd biggest deficit in the Nations history.

Fast forward to 2000 to 2008, following hard on the Republicans having taken out a Contract on America, they expanded the size of government, decreased efficiency and ran the largest deficit in the Nation's history.

Isn't a definition of insanity repeating the same action and expecting a different result?

The only good explanation for Mr. Light having suggested what he has is that he enjoys the feeling when the Republicans are thrown out and the pain and economic bleeding stop for awhile.

Government efficiency under Republicans Mr. Light? Dream on!

That's unless you think they might ship the work to India or China as they did with the jobs of their private sector bankrollers.

Posted by: JohninConnecticut | October 27, 2010 11:22 AM

How do we fix our government. I can think of a start:

Public election funding only.

Change election day from Tuesdays to Fri & Sat.

Change from electoral college to a popular vote for President.

Rotate the early primary states, so every state has a chance to go first.

Prohibit Federal employees (and their immediate family) from working for companies they contract with or regulate for one year after leaving government service. The current system is mired in corruption caused untenable conflicts of interest.

Posted by: JustinCC9 | October 27, 2010 11:11 AM

What about the recently announced cuts of commands from the Defense budget? That was a definite cut in bureaucracy and it is being done now by the Democrats to save enormous sums and it probably would have gone deeper if it had not been for protectionism of bases by Republican as well as Democrat lawmakers. It is clear to me that the Obama Administration is serious about reducing the cost of Government but the Republicans and Democrats in Congress are not, they are just out to protect their own jobs.

Posted by: Ex-Mil | October 27, 2010 9:56 AM

Unfortunately, Congress has been bought & paid for by the banking/finance/pharma industries, which won't allow any major changes. Congress is too concerned with raising campaign money to change in any meaningful way.

As for action from a Rep controlled House, dream on! M. McConnel has publicly stated that job #1 is to make sure that O is a one-term pres. Not jobs, not the economy, not the debt, not national security. There will be gridlock, as all Reps are interested in is trying to bring O down, not actually governing.

Posted by: nyskinsdiehard | October 27, 2010 7:59 AM

Up until almost 2 years ago, Jimmy Carter was the worst president we ever had. The current president is just a corrupt political hack from Chicago.

He has sold out to Wall Street and the big banks, insurance companies and defense contractors. He is the biggest polarizer who has ever inhabited the White House. He is as welcome this fall as the bed bug infestation.

Posted by: alance | October 27, 2010 2:13 AM

I believe the source is deeper than what flashes through the media. Not long after the U.S. Civil War, Arthur Schopenhauer wrote the following:"Controversial Dialectic is the art of disputing, and of disputing in

such a way as to hold one's own, whether one is in the right or the

wrong--_per fas et nefas_.[1] A man may be objectively in the right,

and nevertheless in the eyes of bystanders, and sometimes in his own,

he may come off worst. For example, I may advance a proof of some

assertion, and my adversary may refute the proof, and thus appear to

have refuted the assertion, for which there may, nevertheless, be

other proofs. In this case, of course, my adversary and I change

places: he comes off best, although, as a matter of fact, he is in the

wrong."-THE PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK THE ESSAYS OF ARTHUR SCHOPENHAUER;

THE ART OF CONTROVERSY, Arthur Schopenhauer, January 17, 2004 [eBook #10731]

Even fiction can be clothed in eloquent logic. We need logical honesty in leadership as a measure of intent.

Posted by: hillhopper | October 24, 2010 9:30 PM

The first people in the government that should have their benefits cut is Congress. They receive FULL salary as their "retirement" and a terrific health care plan that they do not pay for. They should get no more than half their salary in retirement and be required to belong to the Federal Health Plan, the same as all the other government workers. That's what we need a national referendum on FIRST! It would pass in a landslide.

Posted by: Georgetowner1 | October 24, 2010 4:20 PM

Which of the late great Roman Orators predicted that "the party is over" once the haves give the....general population (to be polite) the keys to the Treasury! Both wings of the One Party System we have in America today did just that and the Grim Reaper of Reality will inevitably come and get us!

No one to blame by me, you and them!

Posted by: dave_sheehan641 | October 23, 2010 8:08 PM

There is little mention from either side of the role private business, finance and bankers played in bringing down our own and the world economy. Until the overwhelming role big business is playing in financing elections, controlling credit, and opposing fairness in taxation neither party is going to save the country. In addition we have terrible problems with political redistricting, health costs, infrastructure and the Republicans are acting as if none of this matters. The country is on the brink and sliding.

Posted by: paulco | October 22, 2010 10:55 PM

Spam -

Light isn't saying the government should be the ultimate provider of our wants and needs. He is saying that the government we have (and which most people want when it comes to the examples listed) should be made more accountable, productive and efficient. I would have more sympathy with the limited government argument made by folks like you if you didn't over-exaggerate every utterance by those you disagree with to create a faux-jujitsu --where you take a comment out of context or in this case completely changed in text and meaning -- take it to illogical extremes and make it into something not even remotely like the idea expressed. If people in the sensible center like me are forced to choose between the views you represent and the views represented by Light then credibility is the standard and you sir, frankly have none based on your comment.

Posted by: Moderate4USA | October 22, 2010 5:20 PM

Paul Light says:
"The answer will not be found in shrinking the federal workforce or trimming pay, though there is good reason to move resources from the top of the bureaucracy down to the bottom, which has been decimated over the past 20 years. Rather, the answer lies in a sustained effort to make the federal bureaucracy into a much more accountable, productive and efficient agent for delivering the goods and services most Americans say they want."

What a stunningly concise view of the far left's yearning for socialism.
The government should be the ultimate provider of our wants and needs.

Paul Light might take a moment to look at all the EU countries that went down that road for decades and now are rapidly making u-turns...

Posted by: spamsux1 | October 22, 2010 11:39 AM

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