The Next Government: Donald Kettl

Dr. Donald Kettl

Dr. Donald Kettl

Dr. Donald Kettl’s new book is finally out: “The Next Government of the United States:  Why Our Institutions Fail Us and How to Fix Them.”   It obviously goes beyond the testimony he provided before Congress in July where he provided his advice on transition.  It provides a clear perspective of the governance challenges facing the incoming Obama Administration. 

He says that American government rests on three tectonic plates, and that “change” is defined at what occurs at their boundaries:

• Privatization:  the role of government and the relationship between public institutions and private, non-profits.
• Federalism: the role of federalism and the relationship between the national, state, and local governments.
• Globalization:  the role of the U.S. and other forces in the world that shape global life – economic, political, social, and environmental.

He says that, for the first time in U.S. history, all three of these tectonic plates are shifting simultaneously, challenging policy makers with developing new ways of governing.  He begins with a pair of case studies of how government works (or doesn’t) – his aging mother-in-law Mildred who was cared for in a nursing home, supported by a network of public programs; and Hurricane Katrina, which relied on a governmental hierarchy instead of a network approach.

Here are some excerpts:

The Good Old Days Can’t Come Back. . . . “Restructuring strategies to centralize control and power have rarely produced better management.”

“Policymakers often dream of rolling back time, clarifying the responsibilities of the players, or reverting to the old ‘size of government’ questions.  Government’s size and power is increasingly defined by its leverage over the economy and private organizations, and successful governance requires a very different approach.”

“Struggling to fix the problem by insisting even more strongly on structure and process only made the problem worse.”

The Vending Machine Model of Government.   . . “Much of the government continues to operate within the vending –machine model.  Government still calculates and distributes monthly Social Security payments.  It collects taxes and audits returns.  It picks up garbage and mows parkland grass. It maintains national historic sites and runs mass transit.  The vending-machine model is the great governance legacy of the nineteenth-century Progressives, and it tends to work reasonably well for programs that produce relatively routine services within hierarchies.  [Problems like] Katrina , however, represent the new generation of problems. . . . They need instead a leveraged government across complex networks:  government leaders who can effectively align public, private, nonprofit, American, and global players across the mess boundaries of action.”

The Collaborative Model of Government. . . . The new tools of governance “embody an approach very different from the traditional vending-machine model, in which government seeks to design a machine by which it produces government services itself.  There lies the critical problem:  government’s ability to work effectively and to hold its agency accountable depends on its ability to leverage the way these other actors employ tools on its behalf.  The right combination of effectiveness and accountability, in turn, requires great subtlety and skill.  It also needs an approach to governance that relies on leverage instead of command, on building incentives instead of fine-tuning the vending machine.”

“The system’s enormous difficulty in solving these problems has created the two great governance problems of the day:  One is how to manage traditional services in a reliable and efficient way.  The other is how to govern the increasingly complex array of Mildred- and Katrina-style policies.  The puzzle is how to put the vending-machine and leveraged-governance approaches side by side – to assign the right program to the right approach, to ensure that each works well, and to prevent one from interfering with the other. . . . The government that Mildred and Katrina require is not one that sweeps away the old and replaces it with the new but one that governs through two interconnected systems:  one for routine policies managed through hierarchies, the other for non-routine problems governed through networks.”

Reconciling the Two Models.  The “vending machine approach continued to dominate how policy makers thought about policy implementation, but as nonhierarchical strategies became more important, the old public-management model became less useful. . . it increasingly failed to match the emerging realities of governance.”

 “Redefining information-driven accountability for complex, blended systems while retaining authority-based accountability for routine problems is a huge challenge for elected officials.”

We should not abandon authority and hierarchy but “Because they rely on different mechanisms, however, different tools will require different systems of accountability”

 “Coordination is essentially centralizing, since it implies a coordinator. Blended systems are essentially decentralizing, with power and action fragmenting across government agencies, levels of government, public and private sectors, and ultimately global boundaries as well. . . . The importance of boundary spanning, in turn, suggests a new approach for government – an approach that democratizes the process by spreading participation, privatizes government by relying more on nongovernmental partners, governmentalizes the private sector by drawing its organizations more into strong public roles, and ultimately challenges the framework of American democratic institutions.”


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