Letter to the Next President

Don Kettl is a highly respected scholar of government and public management, and he has penned a very thoughtful article–I would say a “must read” article– for a recent issue of Washington Monthly.  In it, he pretends that the 2016 election is over and he’s advising the winner.

Titled “Ten Secret Truths About Government Incompetence,” he begins with the “secret truth” that government actually does a great many things with admirable competence, and works far better than most people think, sharing a long list of areas in which good government performance is taken for granted.

Kettl uses the list to warn the new President that good management will go unremarked, but screw-ups will be magnified.

He also points out that media and citizens alike fail to distinguish between embarrassing, but essentially minor, mistakes, and truly consequential ones:

You’ve benefited from the “Obama is incompetent” narrative. It increased the public’s appetite for getting you—and some fresh air—into Washington. But let’s be honest: you lucked out because of the media’s inability or unwillingness to notice, care about, or explain the difference between hugely consequential management screw-ups and only modestly consequential ones.

Failing to plan for the occupation of Iraq? Disbanding the Iraqi military? Putting inexperienced political cronies in charge of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and downsizing the agency prior to Hurricane Katrina? Now those were screw-ups—big, far-reaching, world-historic blunders that led directly to the deaths of thousands.

As Kettl says, compare that to the inept Obamacare website roll-out , where no one died, and the problems were soon fixed.

Of course, these were big stories—but they were mostly big political stories. The stumbles embarrassed the Obama administration, hinted at an underlying management problem in the administration (more on that shortly), and helped the Republicans weave a powerful campaign narrative. But the stories weren’t about big failures with huge consequences. They were about putting torpedoes below the political waterline.

Kettl also addressed one of my pet peeves: the notion that government should be “run like a business.” Addressing his mythical new President, he writes

You made the case in your campaign that government needs to learn from the best-run private companies. That’s an irresistible line that Republicans invented and Democrats—especially Obama—have come to champion. But, of course, you know that the private sector isn’t always a model of good management. Remember New Coke, Windows 8, the collapse of Chi-Chi’s restaurants, and shrapnel-filled airbags? That’s even before we get to the wholesale financial miscalculations and fraud that led to global economic collapse.

The private market has a big advantage over government: it can bury its bodies in balance sheets and deal with its failures by quietly turning out the lights and locking the doors.

The entire article is well worth reading, especially the section on outsourcing–the fact that most government work is no longer done by government, and how that fact complicates management and accountability. His reminder that so many of the problems we attribute to a President are really problems created by Congress is especially timely.

All in all, the article is an important corrective to the rampant, uninformed anti-government rhetoric meant to appeal to people who don’t have the foggiest notion what government is or does or how it functions.

It’s also reminder that We the People not only need government,  we need the civic skills to make it work properly.


  1. That was an excellent run down of priorities that the next President should run on. Thanks for sharing the link!

  2. One of the many things that I can’t imagine being true but many others swear to is that government ought to be run like a business. Oh I suppose that there are certain practices that work in both government and business but for the most part they are different. What works for business or the military or religion just doesn’t serve the customers of democracy. Never did, never will.

    Not understanding that really is at the base of the repeated failures of the Republican Party. Because their party has morphed into a pure and simple business they believe that government ought too. Of course all is compounded by the fact that most Republicans don’t know how to run a business either. Businesses that are successful as businesses for the long term are customer/product centric. In government the same principles are voter/service centric. Their model is profit centric. Or even worse, cost centric.

    Their marketing efforts for what they see as government are fear based, not pride based. They have to constantly make up and sell threats to comfort that keep the herd paying attention. So, even though the lives of Americans are among the safest and most comfortable to ever exist on earth, fear is the herd dog for their business. Fear of blacks, Muslims, immigrants, technology, socialists, homosexuals, independent women, intellectuals, foreigners, with the regular addition of the fear de jour. Why? To cover the real threats to our existence, ignorance, climate change and oligarchy, which are their real products.

    Is it my imagination or are more and more Americans waking up to this shell game? Is democracy starting to flex its muscles? Are the people starting to say no, hell no. It seems to me so. We pretty much waited ’till the bitter end, the point of no return, but perhaps it’s not yet too late.

    Never give up. Never give up.

  3. I apologize for being on auto rant. I should have first acknowledged the article that Sheila based her blog on. It deserves far greater attention by the American electorate than it’s likely to receive.

  4. Good one! Excellent BRIEF comment, daleb. I tend to scan or skip comments which are longer than Sheila’s original post.

  5. Would any possible presidential candidates other than Hillary, Elizabeth and Bernie read this at this time?

  6. This is another one of those artifacts that will serve as one of the source documents for a seminar entitled, “Exploring Dead Civilizations: Why didn’t they listen to these people?”

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