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May 31, 2013 10:07 AM Paul Volcker on Policy Studies

By James Wimberley

Paul Volcker to Ezra Klein:

Those schools [of public administration] are not as strong as one would like to see them. Public administration has not been in fashion for decades. Many schools have turned to what they call policy. Everybody likes to talk about big issues of war and peace and how we take care of poor people and what we do about other social problems in the United States or elsewhere.

They do all this talking but they too seldom know how to implement what they’re talking about. I ran into a wonderful quotation from Thomas Edison. He said vision without execution is a hallucination. We have too many hallucinations and not enough execution.

Characteristically, Volcker isn’t just complaining, he’s launched – at the age of 85 – an initiative to do something about it, the Volcker Alliance.

I don’t have an axe to grind here but I have a strong enough connection to schools of government and policy studies for this take to be worth discussing.

An anecdote about the elder von Moltke and the Prussian General Staff of 1870. According to Michael Howard (The Franco-Prussian War, p.62). Moltke ran the victorious campaign against France, controlling an army of 850,000 men, with a staff consisting of fourteen officers, ten draughtsmen, seven clerks, and 59 other ranks. (It wasn’t responsible for supply, run by a larger organisation under the Quartermaster-General). This tiny cadre worked because Moltke had trained all the staff officers attached to the corps in the field in his methods, so everybody was working in the same economical style. Moltke had solved the problem of strategic control of very large forces that had bedevilled Napoleon with the Grande Arm√©e, a very blunt and unwieldy instrument compared to the smaller and more manoeuvrable armies with which he had triumphed at Marengo and Austerlitz.

I worked for 32 years for a high-minded international organisation that when I left had still, after 60 years, failed to establish a filing system.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

James Wimberley was head of the mutual assistance section of the department of education for the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and secretary to the Councilís higher education and research committee. He is retired.