Whatever happened to good old American know-how?
The nation that invented modern management seems to be suffering a crisis of competence.
The Secret Service can't protect the White House. Public health authorities can't get their arms around a one-man Ebola outbreak. The army we trained in Iraq collapsed as soon as it was attacked by Islamic extremists, and our own veterans can't get the care they need at VA hospitals. And, lest we forget, it was only a year ago that the White House rolled out its national health insurance program, only to see its website grind to a halt.
Yes, you can argue that these problems all have different causes.
But it's hard not to conclude that something basic is amiss in Washington.
"This isn't a partisan problem," argues Linda Bilmes, a public policy scholar at Harvard's Kennedy School who worked in the Clinton administration — although she does fault the people at the top. "It hasn't been a priority under this president to appoint good managers to top positions, but it wasn't a priority under George W. Bush either."
One basic problem, she said, is that the federal government's personnel system is mired in antiquated civil service rules. "You can't move people around; you can't pay more to retain your best people; you can't easily get rid of people you need to get rid of." Additionally, she noted, "the pay at the top of the scale is inadequate to attract the best and the brightest into government, and as the old saying goes, if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. It's very demoralizing."
But fixing those problems won't be easy, if only because doing so would require bipartisan cooperation in Congress — and increasing the salaries of federal bureaucrats, even if that would make for better management, isn't a popular cause in either party.
"In Washington every management problem turns into a political problem, a chance to score political points," Bilmes noted.
"There's no political upside to improving the federal workforce," she said. "I don't think the problem is worse than it was before … but it isn't being fixed either."
Elaine Kamarck, another Clinton administration veteran now at the Brookings Institution, is tougher on President Obama.
In her view, Obama never made management a high priority — and it shows.
Until the Veterans Affairs scandal erupted this year, for example, there wasn't a full-time implementation officer in the White House to monitor the performance of federal agencies.
"This administration has been disconnected from the government it's supposed to be running," Kamarck charges (and, remember, she's a Democrat). "They seem to view the federal workforce as hostile territory. They don't engage with it…. They don't have a strong system of getting info from the agencies to the president."
The clearest proof: "They keep getting surprised by stuff. And the surprise is almost worse than anything else. It conveys the sense that the White House doesn't know what its own government is doing.
"You can't prevent all these problems from happening, but you can certainly get ahead of the curve on some of them."
Kamarck points to a larger historical trend at the root of the White House's failings: the transformation of the presidency since the 1960s into an engine of the permanent political campaign.
"Today, presidents travel nonstop and talk nonstop," she said. "That wasn't always true. This addiction to PR has been terrible for the presidency. Every hour he's on the campaign trail is an hour he could be talking with members of Congress. My advice to any president would be: Stop talking. Start working."
Presidents who ignore that lesson pay a heavy political price — as Bush did after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and as Obama did after the healthcare rollout a year ago.
"When a president suffers an implementation meltdown, those are far worse than legislative losses," she said. "Legislative losses, there's always another party to blame. Implementation problems, voters are going to blame the president — because they think part of his job is running the government. And Americans expect competence."
The political consequences are already apparent. Obama's poll ratings took a dive after the healthcare rollout and have yet to recover.
And the renewed focus on the federal government's management woes makes it more likely that, in the next presidential election, voters may look for a successful governor — someone like Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, or Chris Christie, the current governor of New Jersey — instead of another sweet-talking legislator. (Of course, that's no guarantee of success; Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush were former governors too.)
The federal government isn't inherently incapable of running big projects reasonably well; just think of Social Security, the space program or the end of the Cold War. But right now, we're not getting the federal government we deserve.
So here's a memo to the next president, whoever he or she turns out to be: Spend more time on the gritty stuff of management, even if that means less time to spend on salesmanship. It will save you — and the rest of us — a lot of grief.