Worthwhile American Initiatives

In 1986, Flora Lewis, a columnist for The New York Times, wrote a column about the Canadian government’s proposal for free trade negotiations with the US with the headline “Worthwhile Canadian Initiative.” Three weeks later, The New Republic, describing this as “possibly the most boring headline ever written,” launched a contest for readers to identify even more boring headlines.

With the benefit of 35 years of hindsight it is clear that The New Republic was completely off-base. Canada’s initiative was hugely consequential, as it led to the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement, then NAFTA, and now USMCA (CUSMA in Canada) and inspired other regional trading blocs. “Worthwhile Canadian initiative” has even become a Canadian meme.

Government Reform

Government reform, the theme of this post, fits within the rubric of worthwhile initiatives. Reforms intended to improve the functioning of government are not as high-profile as policy initiatives, for example those aimed at fighting the pandemic, but provide the capacity for policy initiatives to succeed. Consider how much the Affordable Care Act depended on the smooth functioning of healthcare.gov. I am writing about two legs of The New Republic’s trifecta as I will not discuss Canada – the G7’s staid sister – but rather the US – the G7’s crazy uncle.

The IBM Center for the Business of Government has just published a report (downloadable for free on its website) entitled Government Reform: Lessons from the Past for Actions in the Future. By way of background, the IBM Center is a Washington-based organization that supports dialogue and research intended to make government, in the still-relevant title of the 1993 Gore Report, “work better and cost less.” It hosts conferences and publishes blogs, podcasts, and research reports. This report was written by executive director Daniel Chenok and senior fellow John Kamensky. (Personal disclosure: I have written two reports about public sector innovation for the IBM Center: The Challenge of Innovating in Government (2006) and The Persistence of Innovation in Government (2014), both available on its website.)

The new report reviews 30 years of reform initiatives in the US federal government, starting with the Clinton Administration. Chenok and Kamensky are uniquely qualified authors. Both have had careers in public service, Chenok in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in the IT area, and Kamensky in the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and then as deputy director of Vice-President Gore’s National Partnership for Reinventing Government. Also, their work at the IBM Center, particularly commissioning research reports, has given them excellent access to cutting-edge academic research in public management.

Inside the Report

The primary audience for the report is senior officials of the incoming Biden Administration who are interested in what they can do to make the federal government function more effectively. The report begins with lessons for anyone initiating a reform initiative of any kind, set out chronologically: developing the initiative, implementing it, and sustaining it. These four pages of lessons are wise, helpful, and essential. Even if you don’t have time for the other 114 pages of the report, you should read these four!

The report analyzes three types of reforms: major initiatives, such as the Clinton-Gore National Performance Review and George W. Bush’s President’s Management Agenda; mission support reform initiatives in functions such as information technology, procurement, and financial management; and reforms to enable mission delivery in areas such as enterprise risk management, customer service, and innovation.

The set of topics makes it apparent that this is a wide-ranging study. In addition to its scope, I like is approach. Every section is written by an author – some contributors other than Chenok or Kamenky – who was part of the team initiating the reform. Stories of initiation are inherently interesting. Those who were “present at the creation” are also candid in discussing instances where reforms exceeded expectations and other instances where they did not live up to expectations and sometimes failed outright. The study is also enriched by a series of 27 podcasts that build on the written text.

One notably American dynamic in the report is the tension between partisanship and bipartisanship. Some reforms were initiated with a level of bipartisanship that seems inconceivable in Washington’s current climate. I happen to have an interest in awards for public servants and was chagrined to read that every system of presidential awards, starting with Clinton’s Hammer Awards, was immediately dismantled by the next administration. The broader point is that intense partisanship makes it difficult for any reform to survive a change of administration.

Beyond the Beltway

While the primary intended audience for this report is practitioners inside the DC Beltway, it deserves to be read far beyond it. Public administration and management scholars in the US and overseas should find its discussion of the origins and evaluation of federal government management reforms useful and thought-provoking.

But the report also needs to reach by thoughtful citizens, not just practitioners and academics. The Trump Administration’s calumnies about the “deep state” and “the swamp” have instilled doubt in many minds about the motives and capability of federal public servants. This report could serve as a valuable corrective. If this story of a set of American initiatives in public management is read by citizens of the US and other countries, it will help restore knowledge of and respect for the federal public service, and a recognition that their work is, in the best sense of the word, worthwhile.

John Kamensky’s Role

Working on this report was John Kamensky’s last major project at the IBM Center, and he retired immediately following its publication. Chenok, Kamensky, and the other contributors all deserve congratulations. Kamensky should be particularly proud that, in his last at-bat for the IBM Center, he hit a home run. And that’s not just inside baseball.



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