Fiscal Summit and America’s Fiscal Challenges

Was it a parade of stars or a suicide mission?  Last week I attended a one-day wonk fest on the country’s long term fiscal outlook, the “2010 Fiscal Summit.”  It offered a rainy forecast, with possible thundershowers and occasional tornados.  It was organized by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, which is dedicated to educating the public about the looming fiscal decisions our country needs to make.

Participants included political and news media rock stars:  Bill Clinton, Bob Rubin, Alan Greenspan, Paul Volcker, Alice Rivlin, Peter Orzag, Leslie Stahl, Bob Schieffer, Gwen Ifill, and of course Peter G. Peterson and David Walker (who heads the Foundation).

The Foundation has been trying to put a spotlight on the nation’s increasing fiscal challenges in recent years, with documentaries such as “IOUSA.” But in recent months, it has been promoting the need to come to some decisions.  The recent creation of President Obama’s Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (aka The Deficit Commission) – which is to offer solutions by the end of the year – created an opportunity to showcase the importance of the need to act soon (after the Fall election, of course).  The co-chairs of the commission – Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson – participated along with several members of the commission.

Defining Success.  Simpson referred to the commission’s work as a “suicide mission” and that he held out hopes that “we may only move the ball a yard.”  However Bowles observed that success may well be at least educating the American people of the nature of the choices we face so they’ll put pressure on their elected officials to act.  He observed that “we need to develop citizen trust and confidence that this is not for political gain but to solve a problem.”  Both he and Simpson think that “we need a set of facts and figures that everyone agrees on, as a starting point.”  A low bar, but President Obama says he’ll support whatever the Commission agrees to!

Management Matters.  While most of the conversation centered on more taxes and fewer services, former President Clinton and OMB Director Orzag both offered a different path. Clinton said that we are facing the typical problems of every maturing society.  Once a society becomes successful, it becomes rigid and obsessed with security – economic, social, and defense – and these rigidities need to be overcome.

He observed that our current education, health care, financial, energy, defense, and tax systems are all rigid, highly inefficient delivery systems.  He says we have to dramatically change the way we deliver services in each of these systems.  He observed “Congress understands the problem but isn’t organized to deal with it.”  He thinks one option might be to create a super committee that over a two-year period puts in place the changes needed to deal with the long-term deficit problem.

Orzag focused specifically on the inefficiencies in the health care system, saying it is the biggest driver of the deficit.  He hopefully offered that the new legislation creates several institutions that will begin to shift the entire system from paying for the quantity of services to paying for the quality of services.  How these new institutions are stood up – the Medicare Advisory Board, the Payments Advisory Board, and the Innovation Center – will determine the success of these efforts.

Resources.  There are lots of places trying to market the facts and figures, and some solutions, but they don’t seem to be getting traction among the general public:

Next Steps. The Summit ended with a concrete step towards creating grassroots political attention (beyond the Tea Party) with the announcement of a simultaneous 20-city citizen dialogue on ways to fix long term fiscal challenges. The goal is to create “a shared sense of urgency,” noted Walker.

Maybe you’ll be one of the lucky ones selected to participate in one of these town meetings on June 26th (the Saturday before the 4th of July weekend!).  And in the meanwhile, the Deficit Commission plans monthly meetings through the end of the year.

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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.