Francis Fukuyama on Public Administration
By Arnold Kling
anyone who has spent time in government realizes that the real questions that preoccupy officials have to do with implementation, or rather, the impossibility of implementing many desirable policies because of the huge number of constraints under which modern governments work.
I think he correctly identifies a problem, but I am not sure that he is right about the cause.
The problem is that policies are poorly implemented. Fukuyama suggests that our system of checks and balances, rooted in a fear of government, is the cause.
I have been thinking about this a lot lately. I think that the problem is fixable without getting rid of checks and balances or without losing our anti-government bias. I have been composing some essays trying to take the perspective of a management consultant on government.
I think that policies are poorly implemented because the people who make policy know nothing about implementation. The policy wonk view seems to be, “I design policy. Implementation is a detail that someone else can worry about.”
The classic example of this is TARP. The original proposal was to buy toxic assets. This is when I first identified the “suits vs. geeks” divide. The “suits” proposed buying toxic assets, and when asked how these would be priced they said, “that’s just plumbing.” (Eugene Ludwig said exactly these words.) Those of us on the geek side of the divide thought that the pricing problem would be much more difficult. In fact, it proved insurmountable, and TARP in practice took a totally different direction: instead of a program to restore liquidity to the mortgage securities market, it became a pure bailout of large banks.
Another example would be mortgage modification. A lot of prominent economists and other policy wonks have pushed mortgage modification plans. Some of these have been tried by the Obama Administration. As far as I can tell, none of the planners has a clue about how mortgage origination and servicing work as business processes. I guess they think “that’s just plumbing.” If you had asked me, or anyone else with any industry background, we could have told them that it would take years to implement any of their hare-brained schemes.
If you want policies to be implemented effectively, then policy needs to be made by people who understand something about implementation. Lawyers, economists, and policy wonks have no training or experience in managing large organizations. As a result, policies are enacted without any thought given to implementation issues.
The most important thing to remember about government policies is that they involve large numbers of people. This means that there are management issues.
So a key element in improving public administration is getting public officials to understand the difference between making a pronouncement (or passing a law or writing a regulation) and achieving results. Of course, my inner Hansonian is telling me that public policy is not about achieving results, but that is another story.