Advice to the Next President: The Government Needs More 'Rocket Scientists'

A political scientist offers his thoughts on how Obama should reform government to bring change.

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Change is coming, and Barack Obama's campaign mantra isn't the driving force. So says the University of Pennsylvania's Donald Kettl, who has just written The Next Government of the United States: Why Our Institutions Fail Us and How to Fix Them.

The political scientist uses two seemingly unrelated but simultaneous case studies—the disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the "extraordinary" care his 91-year-old mother-in-law received in an $85,000-a-year nursing home—to illustrate the same point: Today, many of the country's problems are so large and complex that none can be fixed by any single agency or group. Instead, it is government in partnership with private and nonprofit groups that can get the job done. And government, this expert in public administration argues, needs more "rocket scientists."

His mother-in-law, who died in 2007, left behind what Kettl calls the "Mildred paradox," since Medicare and Medicaid paid for most of her care over two years but she never encountered a single government employee. He's also drawn up the "Mildred corollary," which has it that even though taxpayers picked up a tab running into hundreds of thousands of dollars, no one was really in charge. Instead, Kettl and his wife made decisions with a mix of doctors and hospital and nursing home staff. No one budgeted for costs, kept track of the amount spent, or questioned whether the public got its money's worth, he says.

After Katrina struck, FEMA boss Michael Brown went down in infamy, but Kettl says leaders he likens to "rocket scientists" emerged. One is the Coast Guard's Thad Allen, now its commandant, who stepped in, defused squabbling between federal and state players, forged partnerships, and hewed to Coast Guard precepts. That meant giving field commanders a mission, an area of responsibility, and their own resources and assets, and leaving it up to them to do their jobs.

As for the coming change, Kettl says that since the late 1800s there have been regular shifts in the U.S. government's strategy with respect to federalism—the division of power between the federal and state governments—as well as its relationship with the private sector and world at large. He traces the shifts to the dawn of the industrial age in the 1880s, which led Progressives to demand a more robust government and new regulations to restrain the power of private industry.

Early in the 20th century came the Federal Reserve Bank, new cabinet departments, and the first comprehensive federal budget. Roosevelt ushered in the New Deal after the Great Depression. Eisenhower aimed to modernize and professionalize government. LBJ gave us the Great Society to attack poverty and racial injustice. Reagan pushed for privatization of government work.

Kettl recently spoke to U.S. News about the lessons his book holds for the new administration. Excerpts:

How do you assess the government's response to the economic crisis?

It's been exceptionally fast and hard hitting. The administration has not let a second go by, with the possible exception of the difficulty of getting Congress to act. We are in such uncharted waters it's been difficult to determine what the best strategy is. The administration has moved from the idea of [buying] toxic mortgages to infusing capital to taking ownership stakes in some organizations. For example, we have bought an insurance company, AIG. So the strategy has been evolving, and the question of which strategy makes the most sense is still up for grabs.

The challenge is trying to figure out how to mobilize government's resources to try to make the economic crisis as short and as shallow as possible, but it's folly to imagine by simply pushing money out, we're going to solve the problems. It's one thing to push money out; it's another thing to figure out how to track the money, ensure oversight of the money, ensure results and performance for the money—and that has been much harder.

If you had Barack Obama's ear, what advice would you give him?