Escaping Jurassic government

By Donald F. Kettl

A man poses next to a dinosaur model exhibited at the Asturias Jurassic Museum during the “Trapped in the Ice” exhibition in Colunga, northern Spain August 14, 2009. REUTERS/Eloy Alonso

For elected officials used to pushing questions of policy execution down the chain to subordinates, it is difficult to develop the instincts for quick and effective administrative management or for strong and powerful public communication. It is hard to predict just when a Katrina response or Obamacare website debacle might happen, but the growing complexity and interconnectedness of everything makes it increasingly certain that chief executives will face challenges of just this sort. They just do not know what, when, or where. And if they fumble the response, the political fallout can be quick and disastrous.

Elected executives deemphasize policy execution at their political peril. Finally, it is bad government because it generates public distrust in political institutions. The story of the political era since the 1960s has been one of declining trust in government. Trust is a vastly complex phenomenon, and rising distrust is certainly not just an American pathology. In the United States, the roots lie in everything from crises such as Vietnam and Watergate to presidential dissembling to rising economic security and growing income in equality to intractable gridlock. No one problem is at the core; no one solution can end the problem. Nevertheless, it is clear that large and ongoing problems in delivering public programs, in an efficient and accountable manner, are making the problems of distrust even worse.

U.S. President Barack Obama (C) hosts a bipartisan meeting of Congressional leaders in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, January 13, 2015. REUTERS/Larry Downing

The Progressives surely did not have it all right, but they did succeed in building a bipartisan coalition among Republicans and Democrats behind a singular notion: Whatever the policy idea, citizens deserved a program that was competently administered. That consensus gradually evaporated in the face of an ever-more-interwoven government, which increasingly drifted away from the modern administrative state that the consensus had helped create. Performance problems grew from this gap, and those performance problems in turn fed the gridlock that increasingly crippled American democracy.

“We have not lost the taste for fighting about what government should do.”

It is impossible not to marvel at the remarkable foundation built by the Progressives — from both the Republican and Democratic parties — over more than a century. They proved it was possible to fight over what government should do but to find common ground in building the capacity to do it well. We have not lost the taste for fighting about what government should do. We have lost the shared commitment about the positive role that government can — indeed, must — play in the lives of citizens.

We have also slipped from consensus on making government professional, effective, and accountable in doing its work, and that vastly complicates government’s responsibility to deliver services to citizens. We should never expect that we can sweep away partisan differences — or that we ought to try. Rough-and-tumble politics have characterized governments as long as humans have built governments. The healthiest piece of democracy is its ability to structure and resolve conflict. But as I argue in my new book, Escaping Jurassic Government, we certainly could expect that government could regain its commitment to doing well what it chooses to do. This would be the basis of a more honest conversation between elected officials and citizens, it would help steer around the political quicksand that too often devours our leaders, and it would at least avoid making the problem of distrust in government even worse. Those relatively small steps could have a big impact on the American civic life.

Purchase Donald Kettl’s book: Escaping Jurassic Government: How to Recover America’s Lost Commitment to Competence

Donald F. Kettl is the dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland. He is also a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.