Washington Works?

I post this in sympathetic reaction to Anson Burlingame’s diatribe, just published in his blog today.  His frustration with “bureaucrats” caused me to dig out of my ancient files a document I find pertinent to the subject.  If you haven’t already, I recommend reading his “Blistering” first, and then read my post below.

This is from my private archive copy of, “Reflections of A Businessman In Washington, An Interview with Secretary of the Treasury W. Michael Blumenthal, – printed in Fortune Magazine, January 29, 1979.  This article FUNDAMENTALLY CHANGED MY UNDERSTANDING OF HOW CIVIL SERVICE SYSTEMS WORK, which is why I have saved it for all these years.  Unfortunately I could not find it on the web, so excerpts will have to do.

Paperwork - credit Pixmac

(Blumenthal was Treasury Secretary during the Ford administration and before that was Chairman and CEO of the Bendix Corp.  This was an unusually candid interview that covered 8 pages, only a few parts of which are repeated here.  He describes his “. . . transition from running a major multinational corporation to being a senior member of the Cabinet . . . to be a culture shock, ‘ . . .  like moving suddenly to a very foreign country.’ “)

EXCERPTS:   (parenthetical remarks followed by -JW are my own, as are bold and italicized emphases):

. . . Moreover (in government -JW), as in any organization, you have to decide where to put your energies.  You learn very quickly that you do not go down in history as a good or a bad Secretary in terms of how well you ran the place, whether you’re a good administrator or not.  You’re perceived to be a good Secretary in terms of whether the policies for which you are responsible are adjudged successful or not:  what happens to the economy, to the budget, to inflation and to the dollar, how well you run debt financing and international economic relations and what the bankers and the financial community think of you.  those are the things that determine whether you are a successful Secretary.

But that’s not true in a company.  In a company, it’s how well you run the place.  The fact that Bendix under my tenure was selected as one of the five best-managed companies in the United States meant something to my reputation and that of my company.  That’s worth something on the bottom line.  It wouldn’t mean much if people said you run the Treasury better than anybody ever ran it.  Nobody will remember that if there are currency troubles or if inflation accelerates. . .

Moreover, most of the people (in government -JW) who work for you are not selected because they have administrative ability.  They are selected because they have substantive knowledge in particular areas, and they get their jollies, their kicks, out of trying to have influence in those areas, not trying to become the best administrators of their particular bureaus.

Out of 120,000 people in the Treasury, I was able to select 25, maybe.  The other 119,975 are outside my control.  And not only are they outside my control in terms of hiring or firing–they’re also virtually outside my control in terms of transferring.

So it’s hard to talk about running something.  If you wish to make substantive changes, policy changes, and the department employees don’t like what you’re doing, they have ways of stopping you, that do not exist in private industry.  the main method they have is the Congress.  If I say I want to shut down a particular unit or transfer the function of one area to another, there are ways of going to the Congress, and in fact using friends in the Congress to block the move.

They can also use the press to try to stop you. . . (there was much more on this -JW)

I remember asking a former Secretary of the Treasury years ago, when I never dreamed that I would be in his job:  Why don’t you do something about the U.S. Customs Service?  Why don’t you do something about what I saw as the excessive number of customs agents going through bags, on the grounds that they’re unlikely to catch much that way?  If you want to catch the people who smuggle in drugs or dangerous weapons, you have to do it a different way, perhaps with spot checks and not by going through people’s individual bags.  And he shrugged his shoulders and said, I have no time for that.  And I thought to myself, if I ever were in a position of authority, I really would want to do something about that, because as a citizen coming through the U.S. Customs, I always resented that kind of thing, comparing it to Europe.  (note:  he ought to see it now!  -JW)

Now that I’m the Secretary, I realize what he meant, and I haven’t done anything about it, because I’ve spent my time working with the President and my Cabinet colleagues on things that are more important, like economic policy.

That then leads you to the old question of motivation.  In private industry you have many ways of mitigating people. . .   I’m going to reward you at the end of the year with a bonus if you do a certain job.  You could earn a big bonus.  And I can set up a system in the company to pick out the bright young people to do that with, and really develop quality in the company.

That’s impossible in the government, because if I do it with one, all the other twenty-seven-year-olds say, what about me?  If you say well, you’re not as good, you may quite possibly be sued.  So it just cannot be done.  You have almost no control over selection.  Hiring goes off a list.  And to go outside that system involves more bureaucratic footwork than it is worth.

There’s also the problem of retirement.  Under the Civil Service, you don’t have to retire until you’re seventy. . . (I don’t know if that’s still true.  -JW)  A government bureaucracy, in terms of work load, is an inverted pyramid.  The amount of work varies with how far up you are — the people at the top do most of the work and have most of the pressure and cannot delegate . . .  In the government, if you try to do that, you’ll be known as someone who plays tennis, so he can’t be very dedicated.  So you can’t delegate.

In other words, the popular perception of government bureaucracy as being more inefficient than private bureaucracies is true, except at the senior levels.  At the level GS-15 to 18, you have officials who are very dedicated, who work as hard as their counterparts in private business, or harder. . .  they’re also the victims of this inverted pyramid. . . There’s nothing inherent in a bureaucrat that makes him less efficient.  It’s the way the system is structured.  So I’m not indicting the people; I’m indicting the system.  It’s an important distinction.


Dear reader, you are as always free to make of this what you will.  What I make of it is that the larger government gets, the more costly and inefficient it gets.  It’s nobody’s fault (and therein lies the problem).

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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8 Responses to Washington Works?

  1. ansonburlingame says:


    I am still simmering though not blistering now but I will keep (just for these comments) my no cussing pledge made in my blog.

    To me I still think it is the people. The system for sure lets them get away with a lot, but really good people do not take advantage of such a system. They do their job to the best of their ability and usually do it quite well. I have seen many that fall into that category, from secretaries in the Pentagon right out of DC slums to mid level civil servants in the field that work closely with their contractor counterparts yet still maintain the necessary distance to administer and evaluate contractor performance.

    It is the no load slugs that drive me crazy and the no load managers, themselves civil servants that do nothing about it. Duane and I have had this discussion many times as it relates to unions.

    Yes union contracts tend to protect bad workers to some degree. BUT a good manager can still slam dunk such no loads, even fire them if he takes the time and makes the effort to do so. Knowing that performance is dependent on the people working, a good manager will make the time and put forth the effort to get the best from each and every employee. And a good union president will quietly back him up along with at least some of the rank and file.

    It is the lazy managers that try to fire someone without first building a case, over time, that causes the frustration and people blame it on the union contract or the union reps defending the employee.

    Well every murder gets his day in court and representation from a competent counselor. Lousy civil servants and union employees (actually the same pedigree) deserve the same. But those guilty of murder seldom go free if the prosecutor does his job. Same with holding civil servants accountable.

    As for civil service rank, I also tend to disagree. I bet that the Arlington manager and his deputy were SES civil servants with high rank. Even if not I am sure they were GS 15 or higher considering their time in service.

    It is the political appointees that work their butts off most of the time, particularly after they find that can’t delegate sheets down to lower ranks less it becomes AFU. AND as you point out, those folks only work on their particular agenda, stay for a few years, pad their resume then go back to real money.

    I still think the key is to make the “house” much smaller and then clean and manage the dickens out of it to make it stand high and alone in quality of service, not necessarily quantity of same.



    • Jim Wheeler says:


      Your last sentence in your comment mirrors mine and shows that we are in agreement that government is less efficient than private enterprise and that a big part of the solution is in making government smaller. In a sense we have been talking past each other while saying the same thing. I think Blumenthal would agree.

      And, in individual cases I too find poor attitudes and sloth on the part of managers reprehensible, and I would take similar action if I were the manager. But in submitting the Blumenthal article I am simply pointing out that there is a fundamental nature to bureaucracy that has not changed in over 30 years, and probably not in 2000. I’m all in favor of you rectifying that. Knock yourself out. 🙂

      As to the previous “disagreement” over the Mac’s, there again the same principle applies. The only discord there is over the timing. You want to do it quickly while I say it is too critical to the recovery to do it too fast. At least that’s the way I read it.



  2. Jim says:

    Jim one, I share a portion of your sympathy for Anson’s diatribe. It pisses me off that simple record keeping can’t be handled in accordance with the honor brought to Arlington National Cemetery by the veterans there interred.

    A lot of folks like to complain about the (pointy-headed) bureaucrats in government who can’t do many things as well, as efficiently, or as cost-effectively as private bureaucrats. Your citations from Blumenthal’s interview indicate that some companies are structurally different from government agencies. That enables some of those companies to be competent.

    My personal experience, and darn near everything that I learn from friends and reading, is that very many companies are not different from those deficient government agencies. While they lack the structural issues discussed by Blumenthal, they have cultural problems that consistently produce results such as the Arlington fiasco. The number one problem? Companies often believe that ‘get it done now’ is better than ‘get it done right’. They are incapable of seeing that it is less costly, in the long run, to do what is necessary to mitigate risks in a task or project. The results are such deadly events as a coal mine explosion or a deep-sea oil well failure.

    Most of the complaints about government agencies are directed upward to the state or federal governments. Local governments do not have most of the structural issues (such as Civil Service) that Blumenthal mentions. They do have the same problems with competence. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” – Shakespeare

    And don’t get me started about the goofy things that individuals believe and do. It’s amazing that any organization can accomplish anything useful with the superstitious math/science illiterates who conduct the business. As Anson said, “To me I still think it is the people.”

    Jim too


  3. ansonburlingame says:


    In my zeal to point out that “systems” as such rarely fail, it is the people running the “systems” that cause chaos, I forgot to indicate our mutual agreement. I am not in favor of a “meat cleaver” approach to fixing long standing problems. The problems are so imbedded in our society that “ripping” them out would be aakin to heart surgery with pliers.

    but we have been pummping cholesterol in our “systems” for so long now, heart surgery of the most serious sort is needed. Yet progressives call for still more “gum drops” to be consumed and while acknowledging the “surgery might be needed” they say that the patient is too sick at the moment to even make a plan.

    Other than quickly raising taxes I have not heard a word from local or national progressives what the plan for future surgery or when it should occur might be. On the other hand I hear local and national Tea Baggers calling for the “meat cleaver” psrticularly in regards to Art One, Sec Eight remedies. (See Take Back our Country blog).

    Until both sides work towards agreement on what “limited” means in terms of government all we are doing is flailing around rhetorically.

    Are you still lurking, Duane?



  4. Jim Wheeler says:

    To Jim Too and Anson,

    I see general agreement among us in this discussion, but would like to clarify one point about Blumenthal’s comments. An essential point B. makes about bureaucracies is that they are “large”. He points out that bureaucrats have embedded structure, as you both acknowledge, which resists management control. You both seem to feel that a good manager could still deal with such an organization by force of leadership. This is the issue I am addressing. I’m not saying a good manager would not do better in a bureaucracy than a poor one, nor is B. It’s just that what you can achieve is limited. There would be hair, blood and teeth all over the walls, but some of it would be yours, and when the dust settles and you are gone, the entrenched bureaucrats will still be there, and quite smug about it too. (I have actually had some experience with this.)

    The most efficient management of a large organization I have been aware of is one we have discussed before – Rickover over the nuclear-powered submarine force. But that was military and R. wielded real power over assignments and, indirectly, promotions. And his span of control (the number of subordinates supervised directly), while large, was much less than the typical Washington bureaucracy. (How many officers did he interview each year, Anson? Maybe a hundred?) So, that’s apples and oranges and I digress.

    Anson, you are right about the debt problem being intractable, and that progressives don’t seem to get it. Entitlement reform is inevitable because that is the only part of the debt that is big enough to slash and make a difference. The only question is whether we can ease into it through some brave leadership or whether we will do a Greek-like plunge over the cliff.

    As to Jim too’s point of Industry’s short focus, I believe that derives from the fundamental structure of capitalistic investment. Most investors (not the Warren Buffets) are motivated by the short term stuff such as monthly sales and quarterly dividends, not the long term, and management responds accordingly.

    This was a source of enormous frustration for me when I was in the civilian community. Top management would give tremendous lip service to “Quality” as being the number one priority when what they actually did was put monthly SALES as number ONE. It was hypocrisy pure and simple, and it was consistent.

    This has been an interesting exchange by all, I think. Thanks for the inputs.

    ARE you lurking, Duane?



  5. ansonburlingame says:


    I left a considerable amount of my own blood and guts on the walls over the years. Sometimes it was justified to do such, when I was wrong or pushed too hard on the wrong buttons. On the other hand I made professional progress (until running head on into the Pentagon, but I picked myself up and continued professional progress as a civilian) most of the time and got a few things done right.

    I do agree that Rickover is a prime example of such leaders that ALWAYS try to do the next right thing. But he did it with an absolute and unrelenting demand for excellence, not simply having a “span of control” or enough stars on his shoulders.

    NO ONE (other than Congress) “gave” Rickover anything. He just “took it”, and when the chips were down went to Congress for backup.

    Remember he was a mere Captain, USN when he began and every promotion later came from Congress, not the Navy. He ignored everything in the Navy including the CNOs and either did it on his own or with congressional backing.

    He started with only himself and his ideas and built, single handed, his entire organization and structure. He was challenged every step of the way by countless bureaucrats in and out of uniform. But he prevailed as evidenced by the success of the Navy Nuclear Power (not just submarines) program and its uncompromising standards of excellence comparable to none others of which I am aware, in or out of the military.

    As for “interviews” remember this. In the late 40s he began as a one man show with his ideas. When he left in 1982 EVERY nuclear trained officer in the Navy (as well as those that wanted to be but were not accepted) had been personally interviewed by the ADMIRAL, every single one of them. That included some 5 or 6 CNOs in a row in the 70s and 80s.

    And you know something, every one of those men high or low rank or accomplishments, remember to this day each of “their” interviews. THAT is leadership and influence and NO ONE “gave” it to Rickover.

    Oh that more men or women today were like him.



  6. Jim Wheeler says:


    We agree that Rickover is the archetype of the selfless, driven, results-oriented effective manager.

    For others who read this, I would point out that Rickover subordinated everything else to his top goals of safety and efficiency, including careers and personal hardships (including his own). And, very important, the bulk of his power came from control of military careers and assignments, and that would not have applied to managing something like the Treasury Department. That said, I agree that he would have given it his all.

    It is too bad that the Joplin Library no longer has his biography. It did at one time and I read it cover to cover. I suspect they have a lot of pilferage.



  7. ansonburlingame says:


    I suspect had Rickover “run the Treasury Department” he would have done it the same way he did Naval Reactors. All of his employees at NR were in fact civil servants yet they marched to HIS tune not the tune of others.

    But why dwell on it. Rickover was truly unique in government service. Many to this day hated his guts. But they could never “get” to him. His support from Congress was always firm until the end.

    However I did have some insight at the end. From 77-early 81 I was on the OHIO Precommisioning Unit and worked at EB building and testing the new class of SSBNs (missile subs for you non-Navy types). General Dynamics and Rickover went head to head for years over cost overruns, insurance claims, the NR Rep at the shipyard “nosing around” everything, etc. It was a battle royal.

    Then enter Reagan and Lehman (new SecNAV). With a new Republican administration and very pro business General Dynamics struck with all their might to get rid of Rickover, and they succeeded. He left, madder than hell (yet well into his 80’s at the time) and died just a few years later. Lehman was the one that actually fired him. But he could never have pulled it off without Reagan’s backchannel support. And of course during Lehman’s tumultuous tour as SECNAV he too ruled HIS domain with an iron fist, unlike any other SECNAV before or after him perhaps with the exception of Jim Webb, a hero unto himself as well.

    Whether he was too old to fight further or whatever, he had managed to survive such “storms” many times in the past. But not that time for whatever reason.

    The only credit to this great man was his funeral at National Cathederal in DC in I think 86 where essentially the entire “nuclear navy” stationed in DC turned out and provided great tribute to the man.


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