Mocking Public Service

National Public Service Award

Just in time for the national Public Service Recognition Week, Saturday Night Live aired a biting satire:  “The 2010 Public Employee of the Year Award.” In the skit, several finalists for the award strut their stuff.  For example, a fictitious Markeesha Odom says she helped lead her DMV team to ensure no one received a drivers license over the course of a full day!  And the fictitious ceremony was held in a filled hall in Harrah’s in Las Vegas (which Sen. Harry Reid would approve!).

An ongoing dialogue on GovLoop swings between bemusement and outrage over the skit, but the skit reached a national audience.  Meanwhile, two weeks ago, the National Public Service Award was presented to five distinguished public servants.  The presentation was made in San Jose at a small luncheon during the conference of the American Society for Public Administration.  However, distinguished participants in the ceremony included both former Comptroller General David Walker and former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker.  Recipients include:

  • the current head of the Office of Personnel Management, John Berry;
  • veteran city manager Ted Gaebler;
  • GAO veteran Sallyanne Harper;
  • a scientist at NIH, Kenneth Kraemer; and
  • Bernard Melekian, a former police chief and current head of the Justice Department’s community policing program.

The award has been given since 1983 as a way of recognizing the heroes in public service.  But it hasn’t received much media attention.

Nevertheless, the effort to recognize public service, however, is making progress.  President Obama talks about “making public service cool again.”  The Partnership for Public Service annually presents its Service to America Medals at a grand celebration each Fall in Washington to recognize accomplishments.  And more recently, Senator Ted Kaufman has been recognizing “Great Feds” weekly in the Congressional Record, and the Washington Post has been weekly recognizing federal employees in its “Federal Players” column.

In addition, the IBM Center’s weekly radio show has showcased a different federal executive every week, for the past decade.  So I guess I shouldn’t complain too much.  But the timing of the SNL skit may have been a bit much for me!

A High Performance Government

Paul Volcker, Indefatigable Government Reformer

While Jonathan Breul is attending the IRMCO Conference in Cambridge, Maryland, I’m attending the annual conference of the American Society for Public Administration in San Jose, California.  I understand it’s sunny in Cambridge. . . it’s rainy in San Jose!

Today, Paul Volcker delivered the Elliot Richardson lecture and during the course of his presentation, he said he was personally funding a new public service reform effort that he calls a “Campaign for a High Performance Government.”  Now, Mr. Volcker – a former head of the Fed and currently an economic adviser to President Obama – has already chaired two commissions dedicated to improving public service.  The first, in 1987, was formally called “The National Commission on Public Service,” but informally called “The Volcker Commission.”  It issued its final report in 1989 with recommendations to improve the public service: “Leadership for America: Rebuilding the Public Service.” (if you know of a link to the actual report, please provide it in the comment section!)

The second, in 2001, bore the same name and issued a report in 2003 entitled: “Urgent Business for America: Revitalizing the Federal Government for the 21st Century.”  (thanks to Trey for the link).

He has felt neither of the earlier efforts led to sufficient reforms, so this third try will inventory the status of the public service, document the need for action, and identify steps for reform – such as cutting layers of management, streamlining the political appointment process, and slashing the number of political appointees (all of which were recommendations in the earlier reports).  He says this effort will also include an extensive outreach campaign to educate the public on the need for action.

Mr. Volcker says this project will be centered at the Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University under the direction of Paul Light and Hannah Sistare.  He also said that the NYU team would like to collaborate with other groups that share their urgency on the need to act.

More on Senate Performance Hearing

Yesterday I highlighted Jeff Zients’ testimony before the Senate Budget Committee’s Task Force on Government Performance.  But there were two other witnesses who provided some interesting insights, and Senator Mark Warner offered a glimpse of where the Task Force might be heading.

Sir Michael Barber, who led the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit under Tony Blair, described how Blair created and used the Delivery Unit after he was re-elected in 2001.   “Its mission was to secure delivery of about 20 major domestic policy priorities, selected by the Prime Minister in consultation with his cabinet colleagues,” he began.

Barber said the 20 priority areas focus on issues that were most important to citizens, such as reducing crime and ensuring punctuality of the railway, and that were clearly measurable.  He described how targets were set, agency and program “delivery plans” were drawn up, and a routine of regular reports and problem-solving meetings was used to ensure action.

Paul Posner, president of the American Society for Public Administration and a former senior official at the Government Accountability Office, talked about the staying power of the concept of performance budgeting and how it has evolved over the past four decades.  He said that the Budget Committee could put in place a performance assessment process that could lay the groundwork for making performance-based budget choices. 

He noted that “the ability of policymakers to conduct such an annual review process is circumscribed by the structure of the budget process itself.”  For example, tradeoffs between spending programs and tax expenditures cannot happen.  So a housing grant and a home tax credit cannot be considered together in the budget process because these “policy tools” are “owned” by different congressional committees with different jurisdictions. 

He suggested “The Budget Committee Task Force might start by doing selective assessments of the portfolio of programs addressing common outcomes across the government,” such as programs related to food safety or low income housing.  He noted: “The Budget Committee is ideally positioned to lead the way in undertaking these crosscutting assessments” and that it has “the ability to use outcomes as the great unifier.”

Senator Warner observed that the British seem to have a better ability to reach across programs and outcomes than the US.  Sir Michael noted that while the Prime Minister does have authority to do so, he created cabinet committees around each of the 20 outcome areas, designated a lead minister, and gave each cabinet committee a budget to help coordinate action. The Parliament has little to do with this, but in the US any similar process would require a greater role for the legislative branch.

Senator Warner said his Task Force would undertake a “mapping” of programs, agencies, and congressional committees that touch upon a policy arena, and that the Task Force would select and map two or three policy areas as “proof of concept” pilots.  He got the agreement of OMB’s Zients to help, as well.

Next step – selecting the policy arenas!