Tag Archives: Government

Quick Thoughts on “Obama’s Stealth Startup”

A couple of weeks ago, there was a great article in Fast Company about President Obama’s initiative to bring the the technology used in the US bureaucracy into the 21st century. After reading it, there were a few things that came to mind, so I thought I’d write a post with some “Quick Thoughts” as I have in past instances for other events/articles.

1. The first thing that struck me was this idea that Silicon Valley wants to change the world. In particular, the idea that they “think” they are changing the world, but that they actually aren’t. It reminded me of the penultimate episode of Season 1 of “Silicon Valley,” the HBO series. In it, the show parodies Silicon Valley startups who purport to “change the world.” You can see part of it in the beginning of this clip:

In remembering this episode, I wonder if it was like this in previous generations. Obviously, the technology in previous generations was different, especially because companies like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft weren’t even conceived. In addition, “Silicon Valley” looked very different in the ’40s and ’50s than it did in the ’70s and the ’80s. Nonetheless, I wonder if there were idealistic twentysomethings trying to create things that would revolutionize the way something worked.

 

2. The second thing that came to mind was this idea that lawyers spend a couple yrs in DC between jobs. When I lived in the DC area, I remember one of the jokes being that DC has more lawyers per capita than any other city in the US and part of that was because of the government. It also reminded me of scene from The West Wing in Season 7 when Josh Lyman (who has a law degree) flies to California to recruit Sam Seaborn (who is a lawyer) to come work with him at the White House.

I think it’s a fantastic idea to recruit folks who are wizards with technology into highly placed government positions to help accelerate the transition for many government agencies. Goodness knows that the VA could use a technology-upgrade. In thinking about this idea, though, it made me wonder if there are other professions that could also do with a “stopover” of sorts in the government, contributing their unique skillsets to advancing the mission of the US government. Lawyers already make the most sense as they’re position to write/interpret laws, but what other professions would be well-suited for short stints in the government?

Scientists probably also make sense. I’m reminded of Patrick Dempsey’s character from Grey’s Anatomy (Derek Shepherd) who was working on a brain initiative. I’d imagine that scientists in other fields could also do well to spend some time in a government agency, but that’s not really outside the norm. Meaning, that’s already a career path that’s identified for scientists. I wonder, are there other professions for which working in DC is not something that’s on the radar.

Do Public Sector Employees Volunteer More Than Private Sector Employees?

I have a confession to make right off the bat — I wrote the headline for this post specifically to counter Betteridge’s law of headlines. If you’re familiar with it, then you’ve already realized that the answer to the question posed is yes.

From the research:

The models showed that government employees volunteered more in general, and participated in a wider range of organizations. However, when the data is examined more closely, the models suggested that these initial big differences are driven primarily by volunteering in two specific types of organizations: educational institutions and political groups. As expected, having children in the household predicted involvement in educational institutions. Other factors such as education, income, health, and formal and informal connectedness explained the higher participation in other venues, but even controlling for all these factors, government employees were still significantly more likely to volunteer in educational and political institutions.

I find it interesting that even when controlling for things that we might think have be confounding, the effect still holds. More than that, though, is the sample. The researchers mention that people older than 60 were oversampled, but that they also too steps to account for this. However, it’s noteworthy that the years from which these data are pulled are quite “old.” In fact, they pulled data from 2008 and even in 2002! Of course, given limited access to data, I can understand this, but when taking this into account, I’m inclined to think that if the researchers were to duplicate the study with more recent data, they’d find an even bigger effect. Consider this:

According to an AP-GfK poll of 1,044 adults, three out of ten (29 percent) Americans under the age of 30 agreed that citizens have a “very important obligation” to volunteer, a significant increase from the 19 percent who said the same thing in a 1984 survey conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago.

There’s also the idea that millennials prefer a career that “matters” over a career solely motivated by money.

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Let’s assume for a second that public sector employees and private sector employees have the same motivations and that they’re equally likely to volunteer. This isn’t true given the research I’ve included above, but stay with me for a second. Let’s also assume that education, socioeconomic status, and all the other possible confounding variables are equal. Meaning, let’s assume that there’s no difference between a public sector employee and a private sector employee except for the number of hours they work each week. It’s no secret that working in some (many?) private sector jobs, 40-hour workweeks (or less) are the exception rather than the norm. So I wonder, maybe public sector employees volunteering more than their counterparts is a question of availability. If pubic sector employees work only 40 hours in a week, while their private sector counterparts are working 50- or 55-hour workweeks, it stands to reason that public sector employees may be more likely to volunteer simply because they have more time to volunteer. Food for thought.

ResearchBlogging.orgErtas, N. (2014). Public Service Motivation Theory and Voluntary Organizations: Do Government Employees Volunteer More? Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 43 (2), 254-271 DOI: 10.1177/0899764012459254

The Audacity of Hope: Obama’s Impromptu Speech About Trayvon Martin and Race

This afternoon, President Obama surprised everyone by making an appearance in the White House press briefing room. He spoke for approximately 17 minutes about Trayvon Martin, race, the law, and some other things. Part of the specialness of this speech was that it was impromptu (at least it appeared that it was unplanned) and was unscripted. [I couldn’t embed the video, but you can see it here.]

There were a lot of key things that he addressed in his speech, but what I thought to be the most important was the last few minutes. In the last few minutes, President Obama said that the younger generations are doing it much better than previous generations. The implication here is that the younger generations are less racist (or less unapproving) than previous generations. He talked about how he would listen to Malia and Sasha (his kids) speak with their friends and hear how they interacted. As a result, he thinks that the younger generations are doing it better than the older generations.

As I heard him say that, it made me think about how our countries are governed. Right now, the people who run the country (and by extension, the world) are older. I wonder what it’d be like if we had younger people who ruled the world. Maybe younger people would “get us there faster.” As a way to temper the eagerness of young people, maybe it’d be important to have some people from older generations to be advisors.

I wonder… are there any countries, states, provinces, counties, cities, or towns that are run by “younger” people? Are they more successful? Could we map this onto bigger populations with the same success?

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For the first 14+ minutes, it seemed like there was an almost sombre tone to President Obama’s remarks. However, as he shifted to talking about the younger generations, I got the sense that he had hope for the future. I got the sense that he had hope for the future of the country because of the progress he sees in younger generations. While nothing is certain about the future nor are the implications, I’d like to think that it’s rather poetic that the leader of the United States believes in a brighter tomorrow. That President Obama believes that we are getting better as a society. As a people. That we are beginning to treat each other with more respect. More love. More kindness. And the hope is that this will continue with each succeeding generation. Hope.

Is Sunshine Really the Best Disinfectant: Edward Snowden, PRISM, and the NSA

In keeping with the theme from yesterday’s post about Edward Snowden and the leaks about PRISM and the NSA, I thought I’d share something that I was reminded of when I was watching some of the coverage of it earlier this week. Before doing that though, if you haven’t, and regardless of your position on whether he should or shouldn’t have done this, I would urge you to read the article and watch the clip about him in The Guardian.

A couple of days ago I happened to catch a segment of Morning Joe where one of the journalists who broke the story about the NSA, Glenn Greenwald, was on. The clip is about 20 minutes and there’s an interesting exchange between one of the hosts and Greenwald. The part I’d like to highlight today happens towards the end of the segment. I think it was Willie Geist who asked the question and included the phrase, “Sunshine is the best disinfectant,” in reference to getting the information about these programs out in the open. This reminded me of a paper I wrote for a Public Administration class and I thought it might be useful if I detailed some of the research I used for that paper.

The idea that “sunshine is the best disinfectant” with regard to public administration stems from the idea of government reform. In a 2006 paper in Public Administration Review, Paul C. Light defined four tides of government reform:

All government reform is not created equal. Some reforms seek greater efficiency through the application of scientific principles to organization and management, whereas others seek increased economy through attacks on fraud, waste, and abuse. Some seek improved performance through a focus on outcomes and employee engagement, whereas others seek increased fairness through transparency in government and access to information. Although these four approaches are not inherently contradictory — and can even be found side by side in omnibus statutes such as the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act — they emerge from very different readings of government motivations.

These approaches also offer an ideology for every political taste: scientific management for those who prefer tight chains of command and strong presidential leadership; the war on waste for those who favor coordinated retrenchment and what one inspector general once described as “ the visible odium of deterrence ” ( Light 1993 ); a watchful eye for those who believe that sunshine is the best disinfectant for misbehavior; and liberation management for those who hope to free agencies and their employees from the oppressive rules and oversight embedded in the three other philosophies. [Emphasis Added]

My point in sharing this article wasn’t to say that the idea that sunshine is the best disinfectant is good or bad, but merely to put it in context with some other ways of reforming government. You can decide for yourself which you prefer. In fact, there’s a handy table for differentiating the four:

The Four Tides of Reform

And one more interesting table that shows you how government reform in the US has changed since 1945:

Patterns in Reform Philosophy

Quick Thoughts on “The Continuous Reinventing of the Machinery of Government”

I’m into the last semester of an MBA. For my last two electives, I chose courses that could serve me if I chose to be public servant or if I chose to get into the foreign service (I realize those aren’t mutually exclusive areas). My two electives are International Relations and Administration in Public and Nonprofit Organizations. The IR class is certainly challenging as I never had a political science class during my time as an undergraduate. The Public Admin. class has been really fun so far — I’m learning a lot about how the government functions (and doesn’t). I just finished reading one of the chapters for class tomorrow and I wanted to share a few excerpts and some thoughts. All excerpts come from Shafritz’s/Russel’s/Borick’s Introducing Public Administration, 8th edition, Chapter 3, “The Continuous Reinventing of the Machinery of Government.”

“More than 7 million Americans already live in such closed-off communities, and that number is expected to double over the next decade.” (p. 75)

“These new-fashioned feudalists, who are decidedly libertarian concerning the outside world, are surprisingly socialistic concerning the private, inside world of their gated min-cities.” (p.75)

This reminds of something I saw earlier this year. Glenn Beck wants to create his own city. I remember Jon Stewart doing a bit on Beck contrasting his anti-socialistic views for the outside world, but his downright socialistic tendencies when it came to being inside the walls of his city. This has a, “history repeats itself,” kind of feeling to it, doesn’t it? Not the Stewart bit on Beck, but that there’s a push (is there really?) to return to walled-off cities.

“Government entities, once established, tend to last a long time and not change easily.” (p. 79)

While understandable, it seems that there should be more innovation in the government, shouldn’t there? How can we get more innovation in the government, while carefully preserving those agencies that might quickly be lopped off before they’ve had the time to adequately effect the changes mandated of them?

“There is no federal Department of the Environment…” (p. 84)

Doesn’t this seem a bit unfortunate? Pres. Clinton tried to create this department under his administration, but — naturally — was met with opposition. I understand the fear of Big Government, but some things should transcend partisanship. The really twisted part — folks are calling for the Secretary of State to make climate change (!) his top priority! If there were a Department of the Environment, the Secretary of State could focus on other matters concerning the State. This issue seems misplaced. (Note: I should say that I still think it’s important for the Secretary of State to be concerned with climate change, but with a Department of the Environment, the issue would be more appropriately addressed.)

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There are almost 90,000 (!) governments in the United States when you include county, municipal, towns, school districts, and special districts. (p. 86)

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“Because few citizens ride horses to government offices today, it would seem to make a lot of sense to combine many counties and thus realize substantial savings from having fewer county clerks, county sheriffs, county courts, and so on. But which clerk, sheriff, or judge is going to quietly resign?” (p. 88)

This seems like a really important point. It seems to parallel a problem that is often faced in business — short-term profits vs. long-term gains. In this case, it would be taking short-term losses for long-term gains. If the government bought out those employees in areas where it were merging governments, there would likely be a substantial price tag. Although, in doing so, many (theoretically) efficiencies would be realized. Similarly, there would be a great deal of potential entrepreneurs (in those people who were just bought out). Of course, this is hastily laid out here, but it’d be an interesting proposal to have fleshed out.

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I find it odd that special districts have quadrupled since 1942 (now over 37,000), but school districts have shrunk by 90% (from 108,000 in 1942 to approximately 13,000 today). (p. 90-91)

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“Congress has never drawn — as the Brownlow Committee would have liked — a dichotomy between politics and administration.” (p. 105)

“Members thrive on bureaucratic red tape and the opportunities it creates for constituent service. This is why the ombudsman/ombudswoman movement has never gone very far in the US. This function is happily, even joyously, performed by the elected representatives. It is quite literally what their staffs spend most of their time on — because it is the key to reelection.” (p. 105)

Something’s wrong with this picture — assuming that the authors are correct in their assessment (in that this is what most members spend their time on). It reminds me of an idea I’ve heard before where those elected to Congress were only allowed 1 term (2 years) or something like it.

“To reinvent government, you must also reinvent Congress.” (p. 105)

Great idea! How do we do it?

“Privatization is almost always predicated on assumptions about public sector versus private sector efficiency and productivity rates. The burden of proof is often on public sector managers to explain why they are not inferior to private enterprise managers and why they should retain their functions in the face of private sector alternatives. Perhaps no responsibility is greater for public managers today than developing the evaluation and management assessment tools needed to assure critics that public sector programs and enterprises are being managed efficiently and effectively.” (p. 106)

This reminds me of the Project Management class I had this past Fall. The professor would often take us to the dashboards of the federal government showing us those projects that were on-time, behind schedule, under budget, over budget, etc. I wonder if this elaborate check/balance came as a result of those folks who were trying to prove that the public sector was efficient.

Maybe the burden of proof shouldn’t lie with the public sector. Maybe it should be more a of a philosophical debate. Do we think that these services should be provided by the private sector or by the public sector? And then take action from there.

Taxes are the Same for Everyone: Marginal Rates vs. Millionaires and Billionaires

I was watching some of the coverage of the ongoing fiscal cliff mess and I heard one of the people being interviewed talking about how the “Bush tax cuts” are going to be extended for 98% of Americans. This. Is. So. Wrong. I’d like to assume that the people on TV informing the nation know that they’re wrong or that they’re misleading, but I don’t know — maybe they don’t know. Regardless, they’re unintentionally perpetuating myths that have long since been debunked.

To flesh this out: it’s not that once you make a certain amount of income, your rate is completely different for all the money you make, NO! The USA has marginal tax rates, so the first $250,000 you make will get taxed at one rate and any money you make above that gets taxed at a different rate. So, when pundits or talking heads or anyone talking about this fiscal cliff mess tells you that the Bush tax cuts are being extended for 98% of Americans (or any number less than 100%) — they’re wrong.

Elect Effective Decision-Makers, Not Politicians Catering to Sects

Why do some people get elected and others don’t? Outside of the obvious answer of (more votes), there are oodles of books, articles, and dissertations, trying to answer that question. In fact, some people’s entire career is spent being hired as a because they are an ‘expert’ on getting people elected. They will usually have a very good track record as evidenced by the other candidates they’ve helped to elect. Even though there is so much information on how to get people elected, some people still decide to check one candidate’s box over the other or maybe .

Once the politician becomes an elected member of government (at any level), they are then faced with decisions, decisions, and more decisions. Depending on how high they are in the pecking order of the government, they may have more decisions or less decisions. Most of these decisions that I’m talking about refer to voting, specifically on pieces of legislation. As politicians vote on pieces of legislation, members of the press will inform the general public as to how certain politicians have voted on certain issues. Because of this cycle where the information is disseminated to the public, .

While many people will understand a politician’s desire to get reelected, I wonder if they maybe aren’t doing the public a disservice by going against their conscience and I think this stems all the way back to how it is that politicians are elected. Because candidates are all fancied up by their consultants (mostly because this is what the consultants think the public wants to see), rarely do candidates ever really talk about how they actually feel about one issue or another. So, once they get elected and have to vote on something, instead of having the confidence to vote on what they believe, instead, they vote in a way that they know will make them favorable for reelection.

I think that part of the problem here is that in the cycle of disseminating the information from vote to the people, the information is disseminated in such a way that can paint a particular politician in a certain light. I doubt that this is done in a malicious intent (at least not intentionally), but even still, the public viewing/reading said report would then regard the politician negatively even though they might actually agree with how the politician voted. More than that, when the politicians vote a certain way on a bill because they’re worried about reelection, I think that they may really be catering to a smaller minority of people (based on sets of poll numbers fed to them by consultants).

There are many different reasons to elect one person to an office over another, but somewhere high (if not at the top) of that list should be about their decision-making ability. I don’t mean whether they can pick apples or oranges from the supermarket, rather, how it is that said person comes to a decision. I think it is impossible to know the sorts of issues that will arise during one’s term in an office, so instead of electing someone based on their views of long-standing issues, I think it’s better to elect someone because one trusts in the inherent ability of the candidate to make effective decisions.