Neil Tambe

I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

Governance 2.0? and reviewing Paul Light's a Government Ill Executed

Whether or not I've blogged about this before, I often think it: our reconstruction of institutions for governance are outpaced by our increasing and increased demands on institutions for governance. Our problems are becoming more difficult to solve just as our capacity for solving those problems lags behind. I'll take this as truth because I've read about it quite a bit in Paul Light's A Government Ill Executed, I've heard about it from people who know governance, I've witnessed it myself and it's evidenced in small things like crumbling bridges, baffling government websites and inept paper trails.

So, what do we need to do to get governance ready for new problems?

First, what are the tell-tale signs of new breeds of problems?

Interdisciplinary Complexity - We're not in Kansas anymore. Problems we have are large and difficult, often requiring multi and interdisciplinary problem solving approaches. For example, protecting our borders requires addressing illegal immigration, drug smuggling, food safety, the mapping of terrorist networks, financial intervention etc...only to name a few. This one example encapsulates many different disciplines and issues. Moreover, many of these components are intertwined in other government missions (food saftey is related to public health, etc.).

Data Centered - The problems now have to be addressed in the most cheap, effective, and non-intrusive way possible. On top of that there's a tremendous amount of data that's able to be collected. On top of that, performance is measured quantitatively (my guess that it's a borrowing from the financial system, for better or worse). All of this requires data at all steps in the problem-solving process.

Speed, but - Things move fast. If problems aren't addressed quickly, the nature of the problem will change. At the same time a lot of problems require long term strategy, planning or oversight. So, speed must be balance with long-term circumstances...which is really hard, in my opinion.

Subject to democracy - As constituents, we have access to a lot of information. Because of this there can be a tremendous amount of scrutiny from interest-groups, the educated public or the public at large. So, governmance structures not only need to be able to withstand scrutiny but also filter out irrelevant or politicized criticism and leverage increased exposure of government work to aid in problem solving. Institutions of governance need to be able to know when to say "we're wrong", "you're wrong" and "we could use your help". This issue is beyond public relations, it's more appropriate to consider this issue public integration because the public is inolved in governance from day 0.

Resource constrained - Anyone and everyone bashes institutions of governance. This rhetoric is characterized by the suggestion of big, bloated government or in the assertion of extended individual rights at the cost of the good of the republic. As a result governance organizations have to d more with less. Perhaps once their performance is elevated or better recognized resources will follow, but for now, they've gotta do more with less, god forbid Americans don't get another tax cut or get pork barrel spending in their state or district.

There are probably other qualities.

So, what to do? A first step (and I agree with Light here) reorganize the government to center around missions, not functions. What is within the purview of the government, what are the most important priorities? Government agencies have inertia and should be moving forward not based on what prior needs were but on what future needs are going to be.

Clean up the data and fix up the portals. There's a LOT of information, but it needs to be better organized so that governments and the public can use it better. Otherwise, why have it in the first place? With this goes, triage. Creating systems that allow valuable public interaction not only keep the public at bay regarding issues that don't concern them, but it also puts the public comfortably in the center of the debate in issues which their involvement matters greatly.

I have to think about this more.

Reviewing Paul Light's A Government Ill Executed:

An important book which sharply addresses one central question...what's the deal with the Federal Civil Service. It lacks an in-depth historical perspective as to why the Federal Civil Service came to be this way just as it only has a brief list of prescriptions. It's strength is explaining the situation on the ground, right now. And, by golly, the situation is dire.

A particular treat was analysis surrounding particular areas of reform and the difficulties those reforms might bring. Light had a particularly keen insight about streamlining the Federal Civil Service. It's not simply about cutting staff and resources. It's about trimming layers of management and moving resources way from the top of the hierarchy and towards the front-lines, where resources matter most. He also unveiled another issue, the size of the "shadow" contractor workforce, which most tend to underrate.

Light's prescriptions, though brief, are clear. The educated reader could easily piece together a slew of ideas by simply reading the analysis he provides. Whether Light does this to keep the page count low or to avoid partisan overtures is irrelevant, his text is well researched, candid and urgent. Light keeps it non-partisan but like most Americans his tone is pro-good governance.

His most important call to us is not issue specific. He bring momentum to the idea that piecemeal reform just won't do anymore and that we need a comprehensive, non-partisan, civil-service reform agenda. I sincerely hope that's a call that American's and America's elected officials will take action towards.