David Frum: Overcoming Governmental Barriers

Question: How can barriers to progress be overcome in government?

David Frum: When people talk about government, they talk about it in terms of all the new things they would like to see it do, paying very little mind to all the things it's already doing. And so the tendency is for government to become like a coral reef. You know, a coral reef is supposedly a living thing. But what it really is, is a thin veneer of living things attached to the carcasses or the skeletons or the mass.

So much of the U.S. government is like this giant dead mass that sits there doing functions that were considered necessary in the 1960s and the 1920s, or even well back into the 19th century, and it is so tremendously hard to alter their way.

So we end up simply, then, applying another layer of new life, new growth on top of all that has gone before; and it's just too difficult to question what has gone on before. One of the greatest obstacles to getting things done are all the things that formerly got done. 

Even in this tiny little area of the executive office of the president, which is a very small part of the government, there are probably about twice as many people there as there needs to be, and the result of that is not just that you waste a few dollars on salaries, because again, in the scheme of things, it's not so much, it's that everybody is going to twice as many meetings as they need to do, every arrangement is twice or squared, because it can be exponential, you have four people doing the work of two, then eight doing the work of four, and so it multiples.

The presidency would be much more effective if presidents hired half as many people as they do in their personal office; so why don't they do it? Well, the answer is, most of those people have worked on the campaign, the president owes them a little something or they're friends of people, or they're people whom you're grooming for some future leadership role, and so the decision to incorporate them, any one person, always points to a yes answer even though the collective answer should be a no answer.

So you multiply that by all the trillions of dollars the government consumes and you see why this machine can't move, or moves very slowly and often very incompetently.

But the idea that some kind of inspirational leader can make it work better, I don't believe that. I think that making it work better is going to require constant retooling from inside that is dedicated to getting rid of the dead mass.

Question: Basically the reduction of government…

David Frum: I even think on this question of effectiveness, that reduction is; because that makes it sound like some of the things the government does are done by computers and machines and involves sending out checks.  Social Security, whether it's a good program or bad, it doesn’t become any less efficient as it gets bigger. The same number of people can send out 15 million checks as can send out 30 million checks; it's more money, it's not more work.

But the multiplication of programs, they often can be quite; small programs are the ones that tie the government up in knots the most.

One of the classic instances in the area of education, we have this dazzling array of programs. The federal government doesn’t spend so much money on education. The United States as a whole, as a society, spends an enormous amount, but the federal share of it is quite small. What the federal government does is it has teams and individuals working on concepts layered one on top of another going all the way back probably to the Teddy Roosevelt administration with the thickest stratum, with the Johnson administration, and now this new stratum from the [George W.] Bush administration, and they're working on contradictory goals, they are tripping over each other's feet, they are competing with one another.

And they eventually solve their bureaucratic problems by coming to kind of treaties of understanding and saying the way this is going to work is you run your program your way, and I will run my program, which tries to do exactly the opposite, in my way, and you and I will preserve our friendly relationship even though our two programs are constantly crashing and bashing against one another and compromising the other's even hope for effectiveness.

Question: Is a Manhattan Project needed to restructure the government? 

David Frum: We've had those in the past. After World War II, President Truman invited President Hoover to run a great commission to retool and reorganize the U.S. government, and it did some good. It introduced some degree of rationality, and periodically those things have worked.

Most recently we've had the introduction of the Department of Homeland Security, which tried to rationalize some of the functions of government that are now, at last, after some couple of hundred years, you have both immigration and customs in the same bureaucracies. You used to, when you entered the United States, go through two checkpoints, one for immigration and one for customs, and now you go through one, so that's useful.

I think it requires, though, and this goes back to your question about leadership, to make government effective requires a constant commitment to management as a core value. And almost nobody in public life really sincerely feels that, because first the people that go into public life tend to be people that are not managers, and second because good management so often gets in the way of other things that people really care about more.


Recorded on: May 5 2008




Frum talks about reducing bureaucracy and getting stronger decision makers.

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