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FDL Book Salon Welcomes Donald F. Kettl: The Next Government of the United States

donald-kettl-the-next-gov-of-the-united-states.thumbnail.jpgFiredoglake is pleased to welcome Donald F. Kettl and his timely book, The Next Government of the United States: Why Our Institutions Fail Us and How to Fix Them. Donald Kettle is the Robert A. Fox Leadership Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches political science and is a nationally recognized expert on government administration. Please welcome Professor Kettl in our comment section.

Suppose you’re a new Administration inheriting the nation’s enormous problems on January 20. In the last eight years, those problems, from expanding and paying for health care to restructuring the economy to redesigning our energy system have become more serious, urgent and complex. The challenges seem virtually impossible, so how do you create a government equal to the daunting task?

Professor Kettl confronts this question in The Next Government of the United States, using anecdotes of his mother-in-law’s experiences with Medicare/Medicaid juxtaposed with government responses to Katrina, 9/11 and other crises. Kettl’s meticulously researched and engagingly written descriptions of these events are worth the read alone, but his object is not just to tell stories but to draw from them principles of good governance.

A central message is that what government is expected to do has become hugely complicated while its approaches have become extremely complex, virtually unmanageable. As Kettl traces Mildred’s experiences through Medicare and Medicaid in her final years, we find the paradox that most of her health care and expenses were covered by the government, yet she never encountered a single government employee; instead her ever changing needs were handled by a bewildering network of public and private institutions, for-profit and non-profit entities, numerous services and types of care professionals, none of whom were actually government employees.

The "Mildred Paradox," of being with and subject to a vast government-sponsored enterprise but never encountering a government employee combines with the "Mildred Corollary" — that there was never any single person or entity in charge of managing Mildred’s care. And yet, Kettl observes, her care was almost universally good. How did this happen?

Kettl contrasts that experience with government’s initial and follow-up responses to Hurricane Katrina, as well as anecdotes of response efforts after the Exxon Valdez spill, the Oklahoma City bombing, and 9/11. Failed responses are traced to government’s inability to grasp the complexity of the crisis, to realize that no single entity could solve the interrelated problems; a crisis is the hardest time to form the relationships that must exist between disparate response entities.

"Successes" occurred only when key individuals understood the crisis’inherent complexity and unpredictability. Leaders emerged who were committed, flexible and creative in adapting to changing circumstances and good at developing relationships with those in other institutions whose skills and resources were needed to solve the problem. Kettl calls these and related leadership qualities "rocket science." (Forget the "rockets" and instead think of how scientists confront complex problems.)

What we need, Kettl argues, is to develop and nurture a new class of "rocket scientists" — people who understand how complex and interrelated our problems are and who can form and leverage partnerships across the network of government (local/state/federal) and private (for- and non-profit) entities and professionals who all own a piece of the problem and part of the solution.

We can then choose from such accountability mechanisms as government regulations and standards, industry standards, market and/or tax incentives, and so on, to monitor results and promote transparency and accountability.

Is Kettl right? There’s no doubt our most difficult government problems are hugely complex, that some may require not legions of government employees but networks of government/private/profit/non-profit people and institutions working cooperatively. We obviously need smart, dedicated people — Kettl’s "rocket scientists" — who can adapt to and creatively deal with complexity, and who can leverage networks to make it all work. Most of all, we need people deeply committed to solving the problem. All of Kettl’s "successes" fit that pattern.

Kettl’s analysis, however, is non-partisan, outside an explicit ideological framework (though not outside historical context — his discussion of the "Progressive" eras is fascinating). While this might make his arguments acceptable no matter which party won the elections (the book was completed before), it runs the risk of underestimating the relevance of post-Bush conditions. Thus, while he notes Reagan’s phrase that "government is the problem," Kettl chooses not to emphasize the implications and the toll that governance philosophy took not only on trust in government but the foundations of government effectiveness and accountability. Both suffered, so was "Reaganism" a cause that needs correcting?

I also wonder why the concluding discussion on how to build government accountability does not focus on what appears to have been unprecedented levels of corruption, cronyism, ideological politicization, secrecy, misleading propaganda and deliberately appointing senior agency officials who defined their "mission" as undermining their agency’s mandates. Accountability is a serious problem, so why aren’t reversing these conditions and restoring the integrity of each agency’s mission, Inspectors General and the Justice Department top priorities? Kettl notes Congress’ demoralizing lack of oversight, so how do we react to Joe Lieberman, who remains Chair of the Committee overseeing DHS but has done little?

Kettl praises "rocket scientists," but he doesn’t focus on "whistleblowers." Yet in an era of lawlessness, the dedication and courage of whistleblowers suggest they may be true "rocket scientists." Should they be better protected, encouraged, rewarded? And what of those who were purged/demoted for ideological reasons during the Bush years? Were they not precisely the leaders Kettl says we should now nurture? Doesn’t accountability mean reaching back as well as forward?

With those questions to start the discussion, please welcome Professor Kettl to Book Salon.

For other reviews, see here and here.

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John has been writing for Firedoglake since 2006 or so, on whatever interests him. He has a law degree, worked as legal counsel and energy policy adviser for a state energy agency for 20 years and then as a consultant on electricity systems and markets. He's now retired, living in Massachusetts.

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