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.


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.