In July of 1969, the United States put the first man on the moon, marking one of the most significant achievements in the nation's history. According to William D. Eggers, the majority of Americans no longer believe that the government is capable of such a feat. After studying 75 major U.S. policy initiatives since World War II, Eggers and John O'Leary, who is a research fellow at the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard's Kennedy School, wrote a guide for today's public officials, If We Can Put a Man on the Moon...Getting Big Things Done in Government. Eggers, the global director for Deloitte's public-sector industry research program and winner of the 2002 APEX award for excellence in business journalism, recently chatted with U.S. News about why government should focus less on politics and be more like Indiana Jones. Excerpts:
Your book points to the 1969 moon landing as the pinnacle of U.S. government achievement. Has the government actually been able to do any big things since?
The moon landing was a kind of once-in-a-century, singular achievement for America at the time. That said, absolutely, we've had some great achievements. We've won the Cold War. In many cities, we've reduced the crime rates, like in New York City and others, by 50 or 60 percent or more. We reduced the welfare rolls in several states, again by 60, 70, 80 percent. But I think if you look at what we did prior to putting a man on the moon compared to today, then a lot of the really great achievements had occurred before then—whether it's the Marshall Plan, the interstate highway system, and so forth. Something's happened between then and now.
So what happened?
Several things. The 24-7 media focus on the political infighting between the red team and the blue team has created an atmosphere where politics is exciting and process is dull. And we spend all of our time around who's to blame for the state we're in, as opposed to how do we improve the process. We've added so many administrative and bureaucratic and regulatory constraints onto the senior managers who work in our government. We basically handcuff them in so many ways that it's much more difficult to navigate the public-sector terrain than it was 30 years ago.
Would the situation be better if Fortune 500 CEOs ran government?
You know the whole adage: We should just run government like a business. It's really false in many respects because government isn't like a business. In the private sector, there's no such thing as having to get your idea through a legislative body like Congress or a state legislature. It's much more difficult to get big things done in the public sector than the private sector, and to do it effectively requires a deep understanding of the public-sector terrain and how to navigate through all of these traps that are present in government. Some of the most effective people are those who have been in and out of both the public and private sector and have experience in both. We see people like Mayor Bloomberg in New York City or Mitt Romney. It's taken them sometimes a little while to get up to speed on that terrain, but they've applied more of a data-based, objective view to these initiatives, and that's proved very helpful.
So how can the government reform itself?
One of the traps that we talk about in the book is called the complacency trap. It's essentially where you let the way things are stand in the way of how they might be. One of the problems today is that, in government, this notion of re-evaluation and reform—nobody owns that job. So, often, needed change doesn't actually happen, and you end up with an industrial-era government that's operating in this digital age of exponential change. We're governing in a world that doesn't exist anymore. So, that notion of continually refreshing government, re-evaluating these initiatives, re-evaluating agencies and how they do things, is an absolutely imperative part of success.
What's the most we can expect of our government, in terms of reform?
Only 23 percent of Americans now trust government to do the right thing. Of all the challenges facing our nation, the most important simply may be closing this results gap, which is this growing gulf between political promises and actual achievements. So our ability to execute on these challenges is our biggest challenge, essentially. We need to have a policy-design process where we produce public policy that works in the real world, as opposed to just getting through the legislature. We need to understand that passing a bill in itself does not define success; the results are often years down the road.
The book says that often it's less a people problem and more a process problem. Should the media lay off politicians, then?
Well, the media have a very important watchdog role to play, so I would never say that. But I think the current attention—which is always on the people and the personalities over the process—is not always helpful. It's easy to appreciate the more tangible, more easy-to-understand nature of these characters. We see the villains. And they do exist, but they distract us from the underlying systemic reasons for our shortcomings. It would be nice every once in a while to highlight those and talk about what are the lessons learned from the successes, as opposed to always focusing on some of the failures or some of the personality issues.
In the book you make a comparison between public officials and Indiana Jones.
Indiana Jones—he traveled the globe in search of this golden idol, and he always had his map with him. [He] knew that the golden idol would be guarded by booby traps and snares, and I think his greatest attribute was the ability to expect the unexpected. He avoided overconfidence by doing so. If it ever looked like he could walk up and grab the idol, he paused and wondered where the poison darts might be coming from. The elusive treasure of public-sector results is very difficult to get to, and being aware of having a map to get there, which we try to provide in the book, and also being aware of all the traps along the way, the poison darts that are going to come at you, is the key to success, because then you can navigate that terrain.