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 “twofer” is when you get two of something at once – sort of two for the price of one. That’s what you would have gotten if you were at the National Press Club yesterday morning. At 9:00 am, the Partnership for Public Service released their new report: Ready to Govern: Improving the Presidential Transition. The report outlines steps to improve the presidential transition process – a process that relies too much on “hope and luck” according to the Partnership’s Max Stier.  At 10:00 am, the National Research Council and the National Academy of Public Administration released a joint report “Choosing the Nation’s Fiscal Future” offering U.S. leaders ways to address the nation’s fiscal problems and confront its rapidly growing debt.  Two sets of thoughtful reports with sensible recommendations for dealing with two sets of important public policy issues.

Sustaining Health Care Reform

Yesterday, I described how Eggers and O’Leary examined implementation of big government initiatives from a process perspective.  Another NAPA conference session highlighted another book, “Reforms at Risk:  What Happens After Major Policy Changes are Enacted,” by University of Virginia professor Eric Patashnik.  He too, examines “what happens to sweeping and seemingly successful policy reforms after they are passed.”

However, Patashnik looks at it from the perspective of the politics of reform adoption, not the administrative implementation process. He concludes that “the political struggle does not end when major reforms become enacted.”  The key issue he addresses is: “why do certain highly praised policy reforms endure while others are quietly reversed or eroded away?”  Based on a series of case studies, he observes that strong administrative capacity during the implementation process isn’t enough.

Like Eggers and O’Leary, he spins his story around engaging case studies.  He examines key reforms such as the elimination of agricultural subsidies, airline deregulation, procurement reform, and Medicare’s 1988 Catastrophic Coverage Act (that was repeals 16 months after its passage).  In the case of the 1988 Medicare reform bill, the elderly protested that they were being required to pay premiums immediately, for benefits they would receive in the future (long term care).  Protests led to the program’s repeal.

Patashnik tries to identify the specific conditions that need to be present for an enacted reform to be sustained.  One of his case studies was the procurement reforms of the 1990s.  The leader of those reforms, Steve Kelman (who is now a professor at Harvard), agreed with Patashnik’s insights. Patashnik says successful programs, like Social Security, had to develop a strategy for political sustainability in addition to an administrative strategy for effective implementation.  He observes that large reforms necessarily lead to “creative destruction” among interest groups and that new political alliances have to be created.

In the case of health care, will the new reforms result in old coalitions or interest groups disappearing (for example, if the bill includes strong tort reform measures, would the tort lawyers’ political action committees fade)?  Or will the reforms lead to the formation of new groups that find the reforms as positive?  Mapping out these kinds of dynamics should be a Nirvana for political scientists.  But Patashnik’s research implies that this should also be part of any strategic implementation strategy that may be developed by the Administration.

Health Care Reform Implementation (Part 1)

Government Executive’s Alyssa Rosenberg hits the nail on the head in her Fed Blog today, “How Health Care Would Be Run.”  Her piece looks at the increased role of the Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Senate version of the bill.  The House version has significant roles for other agencies as well, and creates a new independent agency, the Health Choices Administration.

But the broader point Rosenberg raises is: Is anyone looking at how this legislation would be implemented?  After all, the 2008 Obama presidential campaign quietly put in place a top-notch transition team in mid-2008 in anticipation that he would win the election.  That team moved quickly once the election was won.  Is there such a team in the wings in anticipation of the passage of a health care bill?

There are a number of implementation issues that do not depend on policy options (such as whether there is a public option, or state exchanges, etc).  For example, it is not too soon to be thinking about things such as (a) identifying a small cadre of successful career civil servants who have the experience of leading large efforts, (b) creating expedited hiring authorities for new functions being created in legislation, or (c) developing new approaches to speed up regulatory development and implementation for statutory provisions to be “implemented immediately.”  As Rosenberg notes, there probably are lessons to be learned from the stand-up of TSA and the implementation of the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit.

Interestingly, health care reform was the underlying theme of the recent annual meeting of the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA), a congressionally-chartered good government non-profit.  This was the first time NAPA devoted an entire annual conference to a single topic.  Why would NAPA do this?  Well, this will likely be the most significant public management challenge facing government in the next decade!

I’ll summarize some of the highlights from that conference over the next few days.

The NAPA conference also triggered some curiosity on my part as to what is actually in the health care reform bills, so I did some browsing.  If you want to look at them also, here are the links:

Have fun browsing; there’s lots there to ponder!

Bottom-up Procurement Reform

There has been flood of memos and guidance on procurement reform coming out of the White House and OMB in recent months.  But an open call for ideas was launched earlier this month via a collaborative project being undertaken by the General Service Administration, the National Academy of Public Administration, and a joint government/industry group called the American Council for Technology/Industry Advisory Council.

This new initiative is called the “Better Buy Project” and it was launched via a website that uses a series of on-line forums to gain insight and ideas.

According to the website:  “The Better Buy Project is an experiment dedicated to the belief that there’s a lot of room for improvement in the way government buys products and services. We’re testing this hypothesis by asking for your ideas on how to make acquisition process more open, transparent and collaborative.”  They plan to do this around the three initial phases of the contracting cycle:

  • Market Research and Requirements Definition Phase—Includes publicizing agency needs and requirements, and refining them based on further input and research about current capabilities.
  • Pre-Solicitation Phase—Includes web-based research, discussions with other federal agencies, meetings and open discussion forums with the private sector to discuss potential solutions, and requests for information soliciting input and ideas. The requirements are also further refined at this stage in the process.
  • Solicitation Phase—Includes the government notifying the private sector of the requirement through various channels such as E-Buy and FedBizOpps, holding open forums to discuss the requirement and answer questions (e.g., Industry Days), a review of the solicitation by interested companies, the written exchange between government and the private sector of questions, answers and clarifications on government requirements, and proposal submissions.

The sponsors are looking for feedback that makes the system more open, transparent, and collaborative. Visitors to the site can offer ideas and comments, or can vote for other ideas (and you are limited to a total of 20 votes in each phase, so use them judiciously!).  So far, two weeks into the effort, there are about 30 ideas/topic threads and a handful of comments and votes.  Where is the contracting community when you need them?  Probably recovering from the traditional end-of-the-fiscal year buying rush!