In the Arena

Management 102

The President gave a speech about his management of the federal bureaucracy today. I've been critical of this aspect of his presidency in the past, so it's only right that I respond to his effort, even though I know this is a topic that only a few of us, really weird wonkomoids, find scintillating.

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Jason Reed / Reuters

U.S. President Barack Obama leaves with Vice President Joe Biden after delivering remarks on his management agenda in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington on July 8, 2013

Correction appended: July 8, 2013, 11:18 p.m. E.T.

The President gave a speech about his management of the federal bureaucracy today. I’ve been critical of this aspect of his presidency in the past, so it’s only right that I respond to his effort, even though I know this is a topic that only a few of us, really weird wonkomoids, find scintillating.

It was an O.K. speech. The best part was a review of some of the good things he’s done since taking office. The best example is FEMA — the Federal Emergency Management Agency — which was a latrine during the George W. Bush presidency and has now become a very effective, results-oriented, consumer-friendly redoubt of excellence; so good, in fact, that Republican governors, in New Jersey and Oklahoma recently, have praised it. FEMA is actually moving in the direction that the rest of the government should — it is taking its services direct to consumers, via phone apps and door-to-door reporting from disaster areas. (As I wrote in my “Can Service Save Us?” cover story a few weeks ago, Team Rubicon — the disaster-relief organization staffed by veterans — has been going house to house with handheld devices provided by Palantir, sending work orders to FEMA as well as the local governments in Oklahoma City after the tornadoes, and New York and New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy.)

FEMA has not only welcomed local not-for-profits into disaster-relief efforts, it has also launched a volunteer FEMA Corps, for civilians who want to help out.

The President noted that he’d hired some private-sector hotshots to help nudge the government into the 21st century and even was optimistic about the health care exchanges — the online supermarkets for health insurance — that will open for business in October. I certainly hope he’s right.

But.

He neglected to mention the most vexing problem facing the federal bureaucracy (and the state and local governments as well): our antiquated civil service system. It is 130 years old this year, invented by Chester Alan Arthur to counter the near universal impression that he was a hack politician, intent on handing out jobs to office seekers, as every President since Washington had done. It worked well at the time, and was a harbinger of the Progressive reform movement that changed the face of American government at the turn of the 20th century.

The government is a different animal now, though. There are about 2.5 million federal employees. Some of them are brilliant at what they do — and they are drastically underpaid compared with their civilian counterparts; the vast majority, I would say, are competent. But there is a significant minority who are dreadful. Some try hard and are dreadful; others are dreadful by choice — there is no incentive for them to be anything more. They can’t be fired; raises come fairly automatically, via seniority. (And it should be noted that the heroes of our Congress are the main impediment to streamlining the legion of job programs, senior-citizen programs, education programs, regulatory regimes and so forth, ad nauseum infinitum, that cause our government to fester.)

As regular readers know, I’ve been appalled by the situation at Veterans Affairs, which — by general consensus — seems the absolute worst pesthole in the federal government. A really good speech by the President would have singled out the VA and said, “O.K., let’s try something new. Let’s see if we can make the VA the avatar of good government in the 21st century. To that end, I’m asking Congress to give me and my successor the power to conduct a five-year experiment in hiring and firing at the VA. Let’s see if the cranks like Joe Klein are right. Let’s see how much incompetent deadwood the Secretary can root out. Let’s see if it makes a difference. If, in five years, the VA remains a mess, then we’ll try something else.”

A few notes:

1. As a matter of good faith, the Republicans should pledge to take up this, and only this, antiquated rule — they should not seek to abolish or modify the rest of civil service. They’ve been barking up this tree for years and rightly so. If the President demonstrates the courage to bark along, they shouldn’t sandbag him. (I have no faith this would ever happen, given the rabid state of the GOP, but it would be nice to think so.)

2. It should also be noted that there are large numbers of hardworking, dedicated professionals in the VA system — these are mostly the people who are actually dealing with wounded veterans. “They’re amazing,” a four-star general recently told me. “But there are two VAs. The second one is the bureaucracy you have to slog through to get to the actual health care providers. Those people are awful. Their culture is diseased. It has to be changed.”

3. If this works, President Obama’s successor should press on to other foggy federal bottoms of lassitude — especially if she’s a democrat. We need a government that really works. The fact that we don’t have one is, without question, the fault of the Democratic Party and its unholy alliance with public employees’ unions. If this mess isn’t rectified, and soon, the party of government will be digging itself out of a deep electoral hole before very long — despite the favorable demographics that make brain-dead Democrats so smug these days.

4. The President doesn’t have to call me a crank in his speech, but he can do so — with no ill feelings on my part — if he actually takes on the civil service system.

An earlier version of this article misstated the name of a government department. It is Veterans Affairs, not Administration.

20 comments
SpikeLee
SpikeLee

Joe Klein made no mention of the sheer amount of contractors hired to work for government.  Sober pundits are aware that this is a severe problem.


"Our antiquated civil service system. It is 130 years old this year"

While this article may have made sense in 1973, Joe Klein is too drunk or too hung over to remember the vast changes made to the civil service system over the past forty years.  His logic fails to match that which he used when he supported the surveillance state.  In other words, rather than keep with public policy research events, Joe Klein repeated old talking points from Fox News.


Newsflash, Joe:  the millionaires who are dumb enough to expect sequestration to make the federal government work better rather than worse already turned to the Republican party.  Bonus: they'll also support your bigotry.

seaann
seaann

The only government that is going to work is God's Kingdom. Matthew 6:9,10.

 People have been praying for God's Kingdom to come His Will be done on earth just as it is in heaven. Very soon that prayer is going to be answered.

 No human being can fix this mess, that has been created by mankind, with its greed and corrupt politic, its no way they can get what needs to be done, DONE, Impossible.

Daniel 2:44 is very clear. God's government is going to put all of these governments ( under Satan's rule) out of business for Good. 1 John 5: 19 shows who really rules the ruling powers. 

That is why Jesus said" My kingdom is no part of this world" John 18:36. 

Even if the leaders have good intentions, it will still never be successful because the root is rotten. Every rotten tree get cut down(system is rotten) Matthew 7:17-20

17 Likewise every good tree produces fine fruit, but every rotten tree produces worthless fruit; 18 a good tree cannot bear worthless fruit, neither can a rotten tree produce fine fruit. 19 Every tree not producing fine fruit gets cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Really, then, by their fruits YOU will recognize those [men].

God's government is going to make this earth a paradise, ( that was the original purpose)

Psalms 37:29 "The righteous themselves will possess the earth and reside forever upon it."

leemccainmd
leemccainmd

As a medical student the VA taught me to fear and despise all things involving the government.  Not sure where these great workers of the VA exist.  The stock answer to most issues of patient care was "I'll get to it when I get to it".  So most in government are either adequate or dreadful.  There is no such thing as a five year experiment in the Federal Bureaucracy.  Once you are in then there you are.  Mr.  Klein seems to want it both ways.  Expanded government but broken hearted when it fails and alas after a 130 years seems it always fails.

john_rambo
john_rambo

Obama couldn't manage a lemonade stand.

grape_crush
grape_crush

Another now-typical anti-union screed by Joe Klein. This time, Klein is fantasizing about being a presidential adviser in a nation just ruined by dastardly employees' unions and their Democratic lackeys in Congress.*

Never mind that he's not making a lot of sense...

> There are about 2.5 million federal employees. Some of them are brilliant at what they do...[...]...the vast majority, I would say, are competent. 

followed by:

>  We need a government that really works. The fact that we don’t have one is, without question, the fault of the Democratic Party and its unholy alliance with public employees unions.

is not only somewhat contradictory, but fails in that Klein fails to describe how public employees unions - much less their traditional support for the Democratic Party - make government not work, much less identify some gross breakdown in administration that has never existed before.

What's even more sad-funny is that in a comment denigrating public unions, Klein identifies a prime source of government waste and inefficiency in a single throwaway line:

> ...it should be noted that the heroes of our Congress are the main impediment to streamlining the legion of job programs, senior citizen programs, education programs, regulatory regimes and so forth, ad nauseum infinitum, that cause our government to fester.

(*notice how Joe is sounding more and more like a fact-less right winger?)

Paul,nnto
Paul,nnto

Joe Klein writing/imagining about the president mentioning Joe Klein.

As to the VA it's not as if nothing good is being done (not that JK would ever mention it)

"Last month, the VA announced it had eliminated more than 65,000 claims from its backlog of veterans who have waited a year or longer for a decision on their claim. The St. Paul regional office, which had always been one of the most efficient of the 58 regional offices, had only a few claims pending for over two years before the initiative began in April. It announced last week that workers completed 27 of the old claims for Minnesota veterans. Some 2-year-old claims that remain are a result of extraordinary circumstances, according to the VA."

http://www.startribune.com/local/stpaul/214078221.html

TyPollard
TyPollard

(I have no faith this would ever happen, given the rabid state of the GOP)

Sadly, no other stories make any difference until this is resolved. Obama is barely relevant as long as the right is a not held into account.

If I were Joe Klein I would bang the drum loudly every day.



cloudninegirl
cloudninegirl

It's impossible for Obama - the Chief Architect of corruption, dishonesty, and Chicago-thuggery - to clean up anything. He says he's going to "clean up government?" What a laugh. Obama wouldn't even be able to clean the men's room. Once again, the pathological liar squatting in our White House is trying to mesmerize and spin a tale that will magnify his own greatness.

tommyudo
tommyudo

On point #1, to use the term "good faith" and  "Republican" in the same sentence is oxymoronic. When are people like Klein and his buddies in the MSM going to stop pretending in their genetic predisposition, and admit that the GOP have no interest in making the fed. govt. work. They are too busy trying to do anything they can to dismantle govt. on the federal and state levels.

sonsofaureus
sonsofaureus

@seaannThe form of government you propose would work if God Himself was administering the bureaucracy.  Short of that, a theocratic government run by people who claim to speak on His behalf would look like the pre-Reformation Papacies.  I don't know what God's government would look like, but I'm pretty sure a bunch of mega-pastors and TV evangelists in America who preach this stuff see themselves wielding a lot of power in it.  

Here's what Jesus said in John 18:36 in its entirety ""My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But now (or 'as it is') my kingdom is not from the world"

A good Christian should concern themselves more with not personally sinning, instead of worrying about the sinful nature of the secular governments of the world at large.  There are also some instructions regarding how and when to pray so as to not boastfully exhibit your faith - make sure you're alone in your room, with doors closed, to pray to your Father who is unseen (Matthew 6:6),

I do find it disturbing that in America, Congress opens session with a virgin sacrifice to Satan... wait that doesn't happen.  Instead, there's a chaplain who leads a prayer, mostly Christian.  It is a tradition (not a requirement) started by Ben Franklin in deference to the belief that God governs all affairs of men anyway.

roknsteve
roknsteve

@seaann We've waited 2000 years for what's-his-name to come back.  Guess what?  He's not coming.  Guess what else?  He never existed.  Yeshua (Jesus) means  "servant."  Christ means "anointed one."  Those are titles and not proper names.  It's called research, seaann, do some.    

Paul,nnto
Paul,nnto

@leemccainmd "As a medical student the VA taught me to fear and despise all things involving the government."

I respect that you didn't take out any student loans. 

Paul,nnto
Paul,nnto

@grape_crush  JK feels his opinions. Combine that with anonymous quotes and you have a perfect example of today's Beltway pundits.

Ivy_B
Ivy_B

@Paul,nnto We can solve the sort of thing Joe complains about by cutting back more employees or putting more on furlough days.

jmac
jmac

@Paul,nnto My husband's VA claims took a while to process, but he's more than happy with the results.  He's happy with the care he gets even though he has to drive a distance to get it.   

greyngold
greyngold

@cloudninegirl Aw the bubble-dwellers are so, so cute. I really hope you like the world you live in, cloudninegirl, because I'm sure glad you are the only one inhabiting it.

Lest we forget that Mitt Romney purposefully ran the most intentionally dishonest campaign in US history.

Now, for the rest of us that aren't treasonously rooting for the US to fail and actually would like to see it get better, I hope Joe is right. 

Ivy_B
Ivy_B

@Paul,nnto @grape_crush Added to Joe's predictable anti-union screed is his complaint about our antiquated civil service system. How much better off we would be if, for example, Bush had been able to replace all of the DoJ employees with hack graduates of Liberty University. At least civil service provides some career employees who don't have a political axe to grind.