October 11, 2015

Why broad public service is declining

Why don’t more Americans go into public service? This is a most important question, because the public sector is being crippled by mediocre, sometimes poor, and, infrequently, but too often, corrupt leadership. When I was young, my parents strongly encouraged me to consider either a career in public service or taking on periodic assignments in public service. I do not want to romanticize government officials in the past, because many of the pathologies we see today have been around for centuries and even millennia.

Nevertheless, I grew up reading about historical figures like the Roman leader Cincinnatus who left his farm to serve in a leadership position, fulfilled his public responsibilities, and then returned as quickly as possible to his farm and his family. George Washington was admired because he completed his two presidential terms, and then went back to his Virginia home. Both of these leaders represented a set of values which placed public service above personal ambition.

My dad was a member of the International Typographers Union, which was noteworthy because it had term limits for union leaders. I have also admired great companies like UPS because they have had implicit terms limits by enforcing early retirement rules for CEOs. I attempted to stay consistent with these values by retiring well before I could get drawn into believing that Pitney Bowes could not survive without me.

Public service has changed from a temporary service environment in which a very broad range of people are drawn upon for their expertise, their diverse perspectives, and their vision of the common good, to one in which a smaller, more ideologically rigid, less diverse, and more partisan group of people have established themselves as part of a relatively permanent government bureaucracy. This is true of elected officials, appointed officials, government union leaders, and civil service managers.

Government at all levels has become like joining a fraternity in which there are vicious hazing rituals, exclusionary admission practices, and an isolation from people outside the fraternity once a member gets admitted.

This did not happen at once, but it’s time to take a brief look at where we are today.

Running for office or being considered for appointive office

A candidate for elective office opens himself or herself to every possible form of disparagement. We need to be held accountable for our decisions, but the ability of opponents to disparage us or any member of our immediate and extended families without any accountability is outrageous.

This is an unintended consequence of a 1964 U.S. Supreme Court decision ullivan vs. The New York Times, in which a plaintiff lost a defamation case because the Supreme Court held that, in the pursuit of free speech, defamation claims by “public figures” were subject to a much higher standard than claims by ordinary citizens. This much higher standard of liability made it almost impossible for public figures to sue those who disparaged them falsely.

The ability to “terrorize” someone running for office or being appointed to an office is far greater than ever. The First Amendment framers could not fathom capturing an individual’s random remark with a digital video camera, posting it globally and permanently within seconds, and building a disparagement campaign around it. In fact, dirty tricksters follow candidates to provoke them into intemperate remarks to post them online.

We have also created such a complex set of disclosure, campaign finance, and election laws that we have increased the cost of running a campaign exponentially, or even the cost of being considered for an appointive office. Incomplete, false, or misleading disclosures, especially of financial data, have been criminalized. What is disclosed becomes the raw material for further disparagement.

Much character assassination that occurs at the national, state, and local levels relative to government officials is a kind of violence, or, if not a directly violent act, an invitation to violence by others.

Throughout history, democratic societies have been served by the collective wisdom of imperfect people in an imperfect, but effective, system of government. I worry about the effectiveness of a person whose life is so devoid of imperfections that he or she could pass through every conceivable public screen.

Being an elected or appointed government official

Even if an individual survives the rigors of either a political campaign or a high-stakes appointment process, we have made many incremental decisions that have crippled the ability of government officials to have a significant impact on the entities they lead. Our civil service system, combined with collective bargaining for a sizable percentage of the government workforces, has created a long-term set of stakeholders that will outlast any elected or appointed official.

I strongly support civil service. The most compelling logic for civil service reform was to insure that government had a system for selecting as many jobs as possible on the basis of merit, not political affiliation, and that there be knowledge and experience continuity in the middle and first-line management ranks during senior leadership transitions.

The key to making civil service systems effective is that the system be designed to retain people with good experience, knowledge, and judgment, not to protect incompetent or even immoral managers from being terminated. It is virtually impossible to take effective disciplinary action in any reasonable period of time against a non-performing manager in most governments.

If an elected or appointive official is blessed with competent and motivated people to make decisions and carry them out, that leadership cadre has very difficult obstacles in getting anything done. Requirements for open meetings significantly reduce candor required for good decision making processes to take place. We do not share publicly every half-formed thought we have, especially on important issue. We have private conversations with people until we have a good sense of what we want to say publicly. The notion that even preliminary discussions must be in public is an over-reaction to the Nixon White House crimes, not a rational way to run government.

When I was growing up, we used to hear about decisions being made in “smoke-filled back rooms.” Today, the back rooms may no longer be “smoke-filled,” but they exist, and they take place outside the regulatory reach of a government meeting. Even in government, there needs to be a zone of privacy in which leaders can have small conversations in which they can formulate their policies and actions.

The other craziness with government is the obsession with process for its own sake. Back in 1991 through 1993, I chaired a public-private task force appointed by Governor Lowell Weicker to implement the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments for large Connecticut-based employers. The task force was filled with the best-qualified people, and it functioned very efficiently and completed its work within a relatively short period of time.

The task forces in which I participated over the last three years were larger, more cumbersome, and much less efficient or effective. There was a much higher level of distrust and many more stakeholders felt that they had to be represented. The groups became larger and the meetings degenerated from problem-analysis and problem-solving sessions to a series of speeches made by each participant. The participants no longer saw themselves focused on the best outcome for the public, but for the group they represented and on whose behalf they were selected.

The other set of issues that make public service challenging were those associated with getting changes made. We have made so many more processes subject to elaborate reviews, comments, and litigation challenges that it is extremely difficult to get anything done.

For example, we cannot renovate a bridge or road or rebuild it, even when it desperately needs renovation, without spending years studying the problem. There has been a broad consensus for at least two decades, that the Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson River desperately needs rebuilding, but the processes for getting the work done are hopelessly complex and time-consuming.

We also overcomplicate what should be simple processes. When I chaired the Governor’s Commission for Reforming the Connecticut Department of Transportation, I discovered that the State had made the hiring of an administrative assistant so complicated that the hiring manager had to interview all 28 qualified candidates, rather than the top 3-5 candidates.

Getting rid of non-performers is equally cumbersome. My Reform Commission members who ran government agencies told me that the average time to terminate a non-performing civil service employee was 18 months, if the agency did everything perfectly. This is ridiculous.

How do we solve these problems?

  • Recognizing the problem is a start. When good people are discouraged from joining public service, something is wrong.
  • We should relook at every law, regulation, process, and procedure to determine whether it serves its intended purpose, and, if so, whether there are excessive side effects.
  • We probably need to relook at the First Amendment, as it relates to the way the Internet and modern digital media amplify the effects of false statements, or even true, but misleading, statements.
  • We need to retain the civil service system, but assess whether there is a point beyond which the protection of employment and of existing processes does not serve the ultimate merit-based system goal.
  • We need a nationwide effort led by the President to rebuild trust among Americans. Many dysfunctional processes are built on distrust.
  • We need to reexamine campaign finance, election, and lobbying laws to see if they violate the rights of Americans to exercise their First Amendment rights. The Supreme Court case last year that struck down some campaign finance laws is a good start in provoking a national debate on the harmful effects of these laws.
  • We need to reduce the criminally punishable financial disclosure and background questionnaire laws that discourage public service.