No One In Charge

The Next Government of the United States: Why Our Institutions Fail Us and How to Fix Them By Donald F. Kettl, W.W. Norton & Company, 256 pages, $25.95

The study of how public policy is carried out has been the stepchild of scholars and practitioners alike. It is intrinsically more interesting to opine on where policy should go than on how to get there. Yet the overwhelming breakdowns of government that lead to political breakdowns have often been failures of implementation.

The trend line on public opinion about George W. Bush illustrates the point. Bush's popularity nose-dived after Hurricane Katrina in September 2005 and never recovered. Had the administration been able to carry out standing policies to deal with the emergency, Bush could have escaped the sense of disgust and disgrace that followed him thereafter.

Implementation is what may bedevil Barack Obama as it has presidents before him. His policy mandate is clear -- to get the economy moving and to get us out of Iraq -- but how to make these things happen is the hard part. Obama's recovery program will run into hundreds of billions of dollars as the administration attempts not just to stimulate the economy in the short term but to build infrastructure -- indeed, "green" infrastructure -- for long-term, sustainable growth.

Where will the programs come from? Who will let the contracts? Will they use existing bureaucratic structures and simply beef them up to spend the money more quickly? Or will they, in the mold of Franklin Roosevelt, create new agencies?

Changes in the way the federal government works complicate these challenges. Increasingly, the government causes things to be done and pays for things to be done, but it no longer does those things itself. Yet we don't have the means of holding this new type of government accountable, because often no one seems to be in charge.

Which is why Donald F. Kettl has made such a valuable contribution in his engaging new book, The Next Government of the United States. Kettl is director of the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania and a longtime student of public administration. In this book he explores the difficulty of holding the new structure of government accountable and suggests what ought to be done.

Kettl uses two compelling examples to illustrate his argument. The first involves his mother-in-law Mildred, an Alzheimer's disease victim who, like many elderly Americans, received medical and nursing-home care at the end of her life courtesy of the Medicare and Medicaid programs. Kettl focuses on the paradox that "she went through the entire application process and then received all of her care for two years through two of the fastest growing programs in the federal budget, yet she never encountered a single government employee." And, says Kettl, "beyond the Mildred paradox is the Mildred corollary: throughout her care -- whose taxpayer-borne costs totaled hundreds of thousands of dollars -- no one was in charge. … No one was budgeting the cost of her care, and no one was keeping track of the total amount spent to improve her quality of life."

Hurricane Katrina provides Kettl with his second illustrative case. "The lack of centralized control of the system," Kettl writes of the federal government's emergency preparedness program, "frustrated angry residents searching for someone to blame. There was no single cause of the levee failure, no smoking gun pointing to a target at which to aim the anger of New Orleanians."

As Kettl points out, the result of modern government is all too often an absence of clear lines of responsibility. The reasons are varied, but Kettl's analysis puts a large share of the blame on Congress, which is simply not up to the job of holding a complex, networked government accountable, because it cannot bear to undo old accountability arrangements. When it established the Department of Homeland Security, for example, Congress refused to merge into a single committee all the separate jurisdictions for oversight of immigration and naturalization, emergency management, the Coast Guard, and other services folded into Homeland Security. So the department reports to 88 committees and subcommittees, making effective oversight impossible.

Solving the accountability problem is a tall order. Kettl proposes some sensible solutions to these problems, such as focusing on results and creating relationships of trust, but there is no clear-cut fix for the problem. The successful managers he identifies are all drawn from emergency situations -- Oklahoma City at the time of the bombing, Arlington County, Virginia, on September 11, 2001, Al Anbar province during the Iraq War, the New Orleans public schools after Katrina. The talented leaders in these emergencies understood intuitively the complexities of the situation and leveraged their authority over other levels of government and private organizations. Instead of trying to command and control, they orchestrated a medley of interests in pursuit of solutions.

Too often, as Kettl points out, government managers are loathe to accept responsibility for outcomes over which they have no control. And who can blame them? The exceptions are the routine chores of government, such as issuing Social Security checks to millions of people every month. But because government increasingly has to solve nonroutine problems, it has to orchestrate a complex of public-private relationships that don't fall neatly into pre-existing boxes on the government's organization chart. It is easy to imagine an Obama stimulus package that needs to be implemented through more than half of the Cabinet departments. The same will be true of action on climate change or on new national-security threats such as a flu pandemic.

The government that Obama has inherited has made only a partial transition to the new framework of networked organization. Most federally financed science and research and development projects as well as pure science, for example, are done, not by government bureaucracies but by government-led networks of private and university researchers. Similarly, even though government pays for human services, private commercial or nonprofit organizations perform most of the work. The same is true even in national security with the rise of private military contractors. But in these areas, the accountability challenge looms especially large. In the past, a new president had to master the federal bureaucracy, which was hard enough. Obama faces an even more daunting problem -- bringing into line with his policies not only the bureaucracy but also the many private organizations that government works through. Kettl's book has no single answer but at least points to the kind of leadership and methods of coordination that this new structure of government demands.