Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

February 29, 2012

Mo’ Better Blues

Filed under: Organizational Issues,State and Local HLS — by Mark Chubb on February 29, 2012

The implicit social contract between government and the governed broke down decades ago for many Americans. As the electorate lost confidence in our political and appointed leaders’ empathy, integrity and wisdom, these leaders starting shifting attention from themselves to government employees.

At first, attention focused on whether government was doing things right. Increasingly, people question whether government is doing the right things. Our preoccupation has shifted from worrying that government was trying to do everything to wondering whether it can do anything. Many now question whether we even need government. And a good many more don’t care much one way or the other.

As we have traveled along this continuum from ambivalence to antipathy (and back), the public has rightly questioned both our purpose and our progress.

Many in power have framed public concerns in terms of two cardinal virtues: efficiency and accountability. And too many leaders have erroneously oversimplified this otherwise accurate prescription by translating it into the management mantra: “Do more with less.”

Anyone who has spent any time at all in public service has heard this mantra repeated often enough. Few find it soothing, even fewer find it inspiring.

The challenge for government is not doing more with less. The challenge for government has always been the same: How do we do better.

Any economist will tell you efficiency has nothing to do with less. It’s about minimizing losses, not inflicting them. An efficient economy maximizes aggregate welfare.

Welfare is far more a question of quality than it is a matter of quantity. Once you have enough, more makes less and less difference. Indeed, mounting evidence suggests more actually is less.

Because efficiency focuses on how much better off everyone is collectively, we need accountability to temper its application. Accountability without a sense of responsibility is retributive and irrational. As such, accountability demands equity, which focuses on increasing individual opportunity even if it means generating a little less welfare for all.

The challenge and opportunity for government is not in producing more for less. It is in maximizing aggregate welfare while promoting or advancing individual opportunity.

This is where things ought to get tricky, and does. Opportunity to do what?

The principal ideological and philosophical difference between those who support government and those who oppose it comes down to a difference of opinion about a single, simple expectation: Whether when given any opportunity people will look after themselves or others first.

This distinction should matter just as much to homeland security professionals as it does to politicians and ideological elites. How we operationalize “do better” depends very much on whether we assume individuals look to maximize their own opportunities or those of others.

When better assumes individuals look after themselves first, we have to worry about how far people will go to get what they want. We also have to worry what people will do to get what they need.

If we look after one another first, we have good cause to believe others will look after us. This eliminates or at least minimizes how much concern we should have about what people will do to meet their basic needs.

This still leaves us with the question of what people will do to get what they want. We cannot eliminate this concern for two reasons: 1) even someone with an altruistic orientation should reasonably strive to maximize gain, especially when the benefits are shared widely, and 2) one’s willingness to share will almost invariably vary depending on whether opportunities are expanding or contracting.

When things are good, people are in a better position to share. But to the surprise of many, they often do not.

As we’ve seen during the latest recession and long recovery, people will share even when (or perhaps especially because) it hurts. This may either be due to empathy or an expectation of future reciprocity. But whatever the reason, such benevolence can neither be overlooked nor taken for granted.

What then can we do to encourage renewed optimism in the capacity of government to promote if not do good by doing better? We can start by raising expectations rather than minimizing them. Instead of explaining what government cannot do, we should emphasize what it does better than the market.

To follow this up, we can show it’s not a question of quantity but quality that makes the difference. At a local level, this means less emphasis on response times and staffing and more on what we do to take care of people when they need help and have nowhere else to turn.

Finally, instead of arguing for employment conditions that give public workers more — more pay, more benefits, more security, we should emphasize the important part collective bargaining plays in ensuring equity and quality. Contracts bind both parties, not just management.

If we want to save the public service ethos, we need to start by sacrificing our egos.

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6 Comments »

Comment by William R. Cumming

February 29, 2012 @ 7:55 am

Agree with Mark about the sacrificing of our egos. Best discussion of civil servants ever was by C.P. Snow in his Strangers and Brothers Series and in particular like “Corridors of Power”!

Civil servants are in fact part of the system of checks and balances. The shattering of trust in government in my lifetime was spearheaded by LBJ and his war in Viet Nam and Richard Nixon and his secret plan to end the war, the treasonous actions of he and Henry K. in dealing with North Viet Nam before the election of 1968, Ronald Reagan’s Mantra that government is the problem and Iran-Contra and others events like the fundamental throwing away a possible important Presidency over personal gratification by Bill Clinton and then of course the GEORGE W. BUSH invasion of Iraq.

Character and trust starts at the top and an argument could be made that both those were violated by all President’s since Eisenhower. The quality of the Congress does not help. Its relentless need for campaign funds means that civil servants who largely don’t contribute to the campaigns are considered not important. The government contractors are practically assessed by the politicians for funds for their campaigns.

The real question is 2012 may well come down to which of the choices in the elections have the soundest character and are most trustworthy. Arguments for and against those available now don’t take much research.

Elected politicians now seem to be largely careerists and not in it for what they can do for the people. The great tragedy will be if the civil servants become part of the same culture.

Secrecy and fear of disclosure appear to rule Washington these days. Is it a wonder that the unknown raises concerns?

Comment by Alan Wolfe

February 29, 2012 @ 8:04 am

It’s a nice sentiment, but my observation goes to the failure of leadership in the government as well as these ridiculous mantras of “do more with less.” I see too many senior level govvies who decide managing is easier than leading, who think avoiding tough decisions is better than facing them, who think that it’s better to pursue a personal agenda of the boss even if it runs completely contrary to the mission and culture of the organization.

Quality is not an emphasized trait these days. There is no measurement against defined actions. The government civilians hear what you say, but they see what you do. And they are not happy.

Comment by William R. Cumming

February 29, 2012 @ 4:27 pm

Agree with Alan also! Washington operates based on loyalty not competence.

Comment by The Doomsayer

March 2, 2012 @ 9:24 am

March 11th – 16th 1945 – Read your history re Germany and the brutality as the Third Reich goes underground to resurface these last days when Germany once again perched to lead us to devastating World War as never seen..watch the reorganization of the EU w/the Vatican again by its side as only ten (10) nations comprise the EU. Read the history and see the social ambitions much like today’s Barry Obama et al who seek to control the destiny of the individual – Read how 9,000+ fellow human beings were being slaughtered daily in thirty camps…Read and look back and question this ever imposing government like the 15 of Hitler’s government agencies sworn to social engineering of the Gustapo and how a an unsuccesful poultry farmer led the mas killings of people, babies and so forth…Read and see how abortions are being supported…how this “Goldman Sachs” riddled executive administration is seeking to undermine the US Constitution and our core Judeo-Christian values and how dare anyone question for if one questions, even the natural born, lawful citizen is cast as a – terrorist!

This coming week and the following were so telling of the culmination of man’s ability to reach out with sword and gas and kill innocents, to control population and to undermine the hope of mankind and willingly and intentionally cast a veil of despair and torture…Do Not forget history and never believe that history cannot repeat itself..

Stad forthright for the unborn…Stand forthright for each of God’s children who deserve dignity. Stand tall and cast the hoodlums out of office and obligated as citizen, stand forthright for the core values which has led our beloved Republic to stand for goodness and to become – until recently – a Beacon of Hope to now become pawns of an ever imposing government which threatens the fabric of our society in so many ways…Be vigilant and be weary of those seeking to undermine ‘ol Glory as our insightful forefather’s cautioned us….

God Bless America!

Christopher Tingus
“Main Street USA”
PO Box 1612
Harwich (Cape Cod), MA 02645 USA
chris.tingus@gmail.com

- Obamacare – an umbrealla of ambitions very much poised to disarm good, law abiding citizens who understand the socialimplications of this admoinistration’s aims and replacing it with docytrine contrary to the principles set forth by our core values as a Judeo-Christian nation. We are at great peril and it is You whoc must stand and be counted or you will be counted as so many back these coming weeks during March 1945 when they were shot in the back by young Germans ordered by Hitler to do the killing w/victoims falling backwards into a ditch and buroed by shovels of dirt. Read and Remember. History has a way of repeating itself especially if We the People are conveying oindifference to what is truly taking place….

Despite the media and despite Mitt Romney, We must cast our vote and bbot out the inept, the self-serving and “smug-smiled Pelosi crowd….”

Loyalty to the inept in the beltway has led to a dwindling and soon forgotten Middle Class in America and the “elitists” w/beer in hand on the White House lawn must be thrown out of office as much of what is taking place today and construed by many here on “Main Street USA” are Acts of Treason! Nothing less….recall initiatives and term limits must be imposed! By the way, where are those $750 billion in surplus monies…oh yea, the banker pals have it in theor pockets and any “change” promised has been stripped from our pockets….

Pingback by What’s Good for Us « R4 Resilience

March 7, 2012 @ 2:00 am

[...] to improve the efficiency and accountability of government services, as I discussed last week, are more likely to involve questions of quality than quantity. This, of course, presents certain [...]

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » What’s Good for Us

March 7, 2012 @ 2:32 am

[...] to improve the efficiency and accountability of government services, as I discussed last week, are more likely to involve questions of quality than quantity. This, of course, presents certain [...]

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