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Creating Leadership for the Twenty First CenturyBy Robert D. Behn
The following article is an except from "Creating Leadership for the Twenty-First Century," which was published in the book For the People: Can We Fix Public Service? (John D. Donahue and Joseph S. Nye Jr. eds.; Brookings Institution Press, 2003). Reprinted by the kind permission of The Brookings Institution Press.
Part 1 of 4
The Reality of What Is Most FixableWhat should we do? What steps should we take to improve the public service in federal, state, and local government? What would be our most effective strategy? What is wrong with trying to implement a few widely applauded management reforms? If we could swear off the costs-less rhetoric, why not adopt some of the technical fixes? Indeed, where is the flaw in the technical fix?
The logic of the technical fix is indeed alluring. Unfortunately this logic leaves out the humans. It leaves out the people who will implement the technical fix. It ignores how people have responded to previous technical fixes. It ignores the predictable ways in which the people in public agencies will respond to yet another technical fix.
The logic of the technical fix assumes that it can be imposed from above. The logic of each technical fix is that this potent instrument requires no subtlety in implementation. The logic of each technical fix assumes that the new administrative system is self-executing: You hit the start icon, and the program runs flawlessly. And yes, the technical-fix program will run. But the execution will be done by the hoop jumpers, and thus (although it may appear to run flawlessly) it may not run as intended.
The logic of the technical fix implicitly (yet unquestionably) assumes that no managerial talent is required to administer the new system. Either (1) the agency managers already possess the managerial and leadership capacity to take advantage of the benefits of the new technical system, (2) the skills required are so minimal that it is not difficult to identify a large number of employees who possess them and to give them the task of merely administering the new system, or (3) making the new system work requires absolutely no talent.
Nevertheless, despite the bluntness of traditional technical fixes, we do possess a variety of ideas about how to manage large organizations. Some of these ideas do concern systems--for example, how to create financial systems to insure that the allocated funds are, indeed, spent for their intended purposes and also to prevent, deter, and catch theft. Some of these ideas concern organizations--for example, how to streamline organizational structures to delegate authority to the lowest reasonable levels, to minimize middle-level overseers, and to enhance the applicability of local implementation.
Of course even these systems do not always work perfectly. In part this is because the people who work in these organizations are not angels. Whether the organization is public or private, the nonangels within can figure out, for example, how to evade the strictures of the financial system. In addition, even angels can make mistakes. Thus the General Accounting Office can report, year after year, that the federal government makes improper financial payments totaling billions of dollars! 29
Sometimes, however, government finds it impossible to employ something even close to a well-established organizational principle. For example, we know a lot about the disadvantages of large bureaucracies and the advantages of lean organizations with few layers and delegated authority for both decisionmaking and implementation.30 Yet, because public officials at all levels distrust their subordinates, they are unwilling to delegate authority. Thus government agencies are hardly lean machines. Instead they are heavy with staff--people with the responsibility for checking up on whether subordinates have made the right decisions, people with the responsibility for making decisions that could and should be made by subordinates, people with the responsibility for ensuring that subordinates have faithfully implemented blunt decisions that the subordinates could have crafted with more subtlety.31
So what should we do? Should we conclude that political and administrative constraints make it nearly impossible to improve the performance of public agencies? Such an inference seems defeatist, particularly when numerous public managers have proven otherwise.32 Can we not learn anything from how these people survived and thrived? Can we not learn anything from how these real, human, public executives improved performance and produced results?33 After all, they braved the same administrative and political impediments that confront any public manager. Each manager encounters a unique collection of formal administrative restrictions and informal political restraints; yet most effective leaders have overcome political and administrative obstacles that were no less oppressive than those faced by their underperforming colleagues. Can we not learn from these successes?34
A fundamental management principle is: Do the doable first. Before you tackle the complicated problems, solve the simple ones. In this case, the easiest thing to fix is the leadership and managerial capacity of our public managers, not the administrative apparatus of government, not the human propensities of our politics.35 We would do best to focus on improving the capabilities and strategies of public executives, the people upon whom we citizens depend to manage the organizations that will produce the results we value. We would do best to focus on improving the ability of public executives to function effectively within the limitations and constraints imposed by the administrative apparatus and political vagaries of government. Admittedly the easiest thing to fix is not particularly easy; otherwise many more public managers would be doing an excellent job. Fixing the managers looks easy only on a relative scale.
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