Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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December 1, 2008

THE NEXT FEMA.... The Washington Post reported the other day that the incoming Obama administration has been scrutinizing the beleaguered Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and plans to give it a "facelift."

It was a reminder that Obama, on top of the multiple global crises that will require his immediate attention, also happens to have an executive branch of government to fix. This goes well beyond addressing FEMA's humiliating troubles -- the new administration will have hundreds of senior-level agency jobs to fill in the coming weeks and months, and below that, hundreds of thousands of civil servants who will be retiring in the next few years. The staffing decisions will dictate whether and when dysfunctional agencies that have languished under Bush can get back on track.

In the new issue of the Washington Monthly, Harvard University's John D. Donahue, an assistant secretary of labor in the Clinton administration, and Max Stier, CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, explain that most presidents haven't spent much political capital on improving the federal government's human capital. Obama doesn't have that luxury.

No president in recent memory has come into office with so many and such varied crises to deal with -- from two intractable ground wars to a possible global recession -- plus an ambitious policy agenda of his own, including passing and (the hard part) implementing universal health care. The president-elect can be forgiven for not wanting to spend precious time, energy, and political capital on the thankless, glamour-free chore of upgrading the capacity of federal agencies. Few of his predecessors, after all, made performance improvement much of a priority. Obama didn't break the federal government, and he has plenty of things he'd rather focus on than fixing it. Maybe it's not fair, but it's still a fact: if the president-elect waits until the rest of his agenda is well launched to worry about federal performance capacity, the rest of his agenda will never get off the ground.

Huge new federal responsibilities, stretched and sclerotic workforces, and fresh memories of the Bush administration's operational failures have combined, we believe, to make top-flight management a political imperative for the incoming administration in a way it has not been for previous ones. To put it bluntly: even with brilliant policy ideas and flawless political instincts, Barack Obama's administration is likely to fail if it doesn't reverse the erosion in federal capacity.

Donahue and Stier make a compelling case, and offer the incoming administration a roadmap on how to make these key changes. Take a look.

Steve Benen 12:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (10)

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Though the typo is (sadly) probably accidental, 'faceleft' is exactly what many government agencies need: an overhaul by people who believe that government isn't inherently evil.

Posted by: kth on December 1, 2008 at 2:14 AM | PERMALINK

Bush runs the bureaucracy into the ground and that "confirms" conservatives' (including his own) negative view of government.

Worst president in our history. At least one can say that half the country saw it coming. But what does this say about the other half?

Posted by: sjw on December 1, 2008 at 5:49 AM | PERMALINK

Fixing FEMA, as with fixing any of the other Departments, will require more than a mere faceleft (I do so like that term, Mr. Benen, and hereby elevate you to the position of Doctor of Political Expressionism---PE.D). It will require a thorough housecleaning.

The Bushylvanians that can be replaced should be booted on Day One; the ones tucked into permanent CS positions should simply be transferred to a "new" department within each department; given an empty desk with no phone or computer access in a soundproof room, where they can commiserate together as they languish in obscurity. These "new" positions, of course, would be immune from performance reviews and pay increases, while at the same time being open to an excruciating public scrutiny---establishing a job-comfort level of negative proportions.

One might even refer to this new "department" as Politically Hired Limited Emphasis Government Manpower --- or PHLEGM for short.

Kieth Olbermann could name a new nightly prize after them ---the PHLEGMMIES!

I know a lot of uber-conservatives who would rather die than be awarded a Kieth Olbenmann PHLEGMMY....

Posted by: Steve W. on December 1, 2008 at 7:25 AM | PERMALINK

Transfers into obscurity are exactly the wrong thing to do. The idea that any department accepts non-productivity or counter-productivity is destructive and must not be tolerated. A manager who accepts such things is weak.

There will be a host of administrative tasks for the Obama team to undertake, the first of which will be to change the culture of their departments. Among the tools that are needed to do that is termination, and making the staff believe that unproductive or counter-productive employees will be terminated. The marginal or bad employees need the fear, and the good employees need to know that management knows who's good, who's bad, and won't make the good carry the bad. Terminating bad employees is perfectly possible, but it takes good management skills. There must be clearly defined performance standards, but those should be in place anyway. There must be defensible evaluations, but why would a competent manager accept anything less? Finally, there must be a system of increasingly severe consequences for poor performance.

I fired a lot of people during my decades of government administration, most of them appealed the termination (and other disciplinary actions), and not one of them won. I almost always regretted the termination because it was an admission of failure on my part to get people who I am sure had the potential to perform to do what I wanted them to do. But admitting failure and dealing with it is absolutely essential to success.

Posted by: Eric on December 1, 2008 at 8:07 AM | PERMALINK

The statement "Few of his predecessors, after all, made performance improvement much of a priority," is quite incorrect. Bill Clinton made FEMA an early priority and transformed a dysfunctional, failure-ridden agency into a model of professionalism and competence.

Posted by: Paul Gottlieb on December 1, 2008 at 10:08 AM | PERMALINK

This kind of change, implying many of the Bush and Company hold overs may not be too bad, but for the most part a statement will be made. For those huge massive government subcontractor actions, sweet heart deals, bet your boots about military deals, Black-Water types to Pentagon’s secret stash to work efficiently, take expert diligence and persistent deceit at the expense of the tax payer, here they are paid daily to bilk the government out of trillions of dollars.

One has to work hard to avoid exposure tied to criminal intent with deception of secret torture prisons, violations of our Constitution and International Treaties, the Geneva Convention, wire tapping, not addressing alien disarray. Especially the destruction of America’s nuclear over sight and safety net in the outing of Valarie Plame. The under reported Iraqi veteran suicides, some cover up where thousands perhaps more veterans are killing them selves off the battle field then in it.

The travesty of 911 is too, too easy for the explanation that Bush and Company held the door open for Bin Laden’s family son to exercise plans to commit an atrocity, planes hijacked with box cutters then reprisal pledged on a mountain of ash with a bull horn is an expression of an a self centered psychotic woven in greed grown principles. All easily displayed in the family heritage, from Prescott Bush here the foundation of profiteering in war policy and profiteering in the name freedom. Banking and the industry fiascos now screaming at America, pass the Jekyll Island money, the Federal Reserve instant title white collar funding system or else.

It appears very strikingly the friends of Bush and Company the Bin Laden family the primer financers of America Domestic and International terror have been manipulating America’s, economy, energy, education, and especially Mainstream Media for decades. If that does not fall under the definition of treason, then America lost its way.

A non sense war is the perfect way, and considering the culture Iraq is drawn from, these people have been in revolt since the time before Christ implying that is their legacy. Here, perpetual chaos is finally admitted to exist.

Those experts at avoiding public retribution, exampled by the shallow demand from the oversight by America’s Mainstream media for at least resignation, show the complicity to corruption in Bush’s government and banking business. This new credit crunch dispalys another possiblity no one wants to do business with Bush. This is highlighted by the dim feeble true analysis of departments like the whole of Homeland Security and Americas failing Banking system. Isn’t it amazing how all three cable networks could at an instant show with maps and statistical pie’s, tons of polling, leading edge data that shows a trend for the political win? Then plead ignorant to the economic chaos now upon us. Don’t you think the media is digging their own hole of lies? Yep they are!

But, before your eyes, in your face claim not to have any ideal how this economic dizzy catastrophe took hold. Here, the Bush buddies will go off into the sunset, those who have not, will likely see the writing on the wall. That includes media types, and an FCC core change.

For me, the “at will” way to operate always expressed the partisan economic system America is in. Don’t kid yourself, if you are in a politically charged company that is a different ideology then eventually, you are out, and if you don’t have a union, you will be gone some day. Just as those subcontractors that are connected to millions of jobs are eventually on the streets.

Here, what really is terrifying to the Republicans is the change of ideals to replace our military in Iraq and around the world with a rebuilding community Domestic and International, say an army of peace time opportunity is the solution. That nineteen year old Pakistani boy in the latest India atrocity fully expresses what those young people in the Middle East are cultured to do. Face it; they have too much time on their hands for revolt rather than participating in a fulfilling vocation. More telling is that Wahabbi Arab friend ship and mix America has been duped with for decades. American’s are infidels and the Wahabbi are doing a good job creating chaos and uncertainty so we kill our selves.

Posted by: Megalomania on December 1, 2008 at 10:09 AM | PERMALINK

If Obama's campaign is any indication of how he will manage the govt, then there is already the realization on his part that having the right people in the right place is the only way to get things done.

Posted by: cv on December 1, 2008 at 10:23 AM | PERMALINK

FEMA will require both more + less than a facelift. Less, in that the main thing which FEMA, and many other Federal agencies, needs is an injection of professionals to replace the political appointees who ran the departments into the ground under the Bush years. As has been noted, when people who don't think that government can do anything right wind up in control of government, they do their best to prove themselves correct.

Unfortunately, due to the 'burrowing' of political appointees into protected civil service positions, flushing the loyah Bushies who trashed our government will be a difficult and lengthy process. In this, FEMA could be an excellent test case; if the Obama administration is able to remake it so that it more closely resembles the agency which was so widely praised while under the leadership of James Lee Witt, it would provide an excellent example for the rest of the Federal government.


Posted by: Zorro on December 1, 2008 at 11:44 AM | PERMALINK

the current occupant of the white house is a landlord's worst nightmare...an apartment wrecker hellbent on trashing what's left of the place on the way out the door...

as for obama's task: this comes to mind:
"The fifth of the Twelve Labours set to Hercules was to clean the Augean stables in a single day."

Posted by: dj spellchecka on December 1, 2008 at 2:06 PM | PERMALINK

Fortunately for Obama, I don't think that anyone expects him to clean up the mess the the Bushies made of Federal agencies in a single day.


Posted by: Zorro on December 1, 2008 at 2:19 PM | PERMALINK



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