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.
(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.
END OF EXCERPTS
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).