Reading for government classes: Obama’s shift in governing philosophy

January 28, 2009

No, Obama didn’t change his mind.  He’s changing the way government does business — putting government on a more solidly-based, business-like model for performance, according to at least one observer.  That’s the shift discussed.

And it’s about time, I say.

Max Stier’s commentary on the Fed Page of the Washington Post quickly lays out the case that Obama’s making big changes.  Copy it for students in your government classes (or history classes, if you’re studying the presidency in any depth).  Stier wrote:

There are some fundamental reasons why our federal government’s operational health has been allowed to steadily deteriorate. It’s hard to change what you don’t measure, and our government operates in an environment with very few meaningful and useful measurements for performance. Perhaps more significantly, it is run by short-term political leadership that has little incentive to focus on long-term issues.

A typical presidential appointee stays in government for roughly two years and is rewarded for crisis management and scoring policy wins. These individuals are highly unlikely to spend significant energy on management issues, when the benefits of such an investment won’t be seen until after they are long gone.

(According to the Post, “Max Stier is president and CEO of Partnership for Public Service, a group that seeks to revitalize the federal government.”  I don’t know of him otherwise.)

Political appointees can be good, but too many have not been over the past 25 years.  A bad enough political appointee can frustrate even the most adept, dedicated-to-the-people’s-business career federal service employees, and frustrate the law and good management of agencies.

Let’s wish them all good luck.

Potential questions to follow-up this article in discussions:

  • Constitution: Under the Constitution, who specifically is charged with managing the federal agencies, the “federal bureaucracy?  What is that charge, in the Constitution?
  • Constitution, politics: What is the role of Congress in managing the federal bureaucracy?
  • Evaluating information sources: Do some research on the internet.  Is Max Stier a credible source of information on managing federal agencies?  Why, or why not?  Who provides an opposing view to Stier’s?  Are they credible?  Why or why not?
  • Evaluating information sources: Is the Fed Page of the Washington Post a good source of information about the federal bureaucracy?  (Students may want to investigate columnists and features at this site; the Fed Page was started as a one-page feature of the newspaper in the early 1980s, covering for the public issues that tended to slip through the cracks of other news coverage, but which were very important to the vast army of federal employees and federal policy wonks in Washington.)  What other sources might be expected?  What other sources are there?  (Federal News Radio is another site that focuses on the functions of the federal agencies — Mike Causey started out writing the column on the bureaucracy in the Washington Post; this is an AM radio station dedicated to covering federal functions in the federal city.  Other sources should include National Journal, and Congressional Quarterly, especially if you have those publications in your school library).
  • History, maybe a compare and contrast question: How has the federal bureaucracy changed over time?  Compare the size, scope and people employed by the federal government under the administrations of George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses Grant, James Garfield, William McKinley, Dwight Eisenhower, and Bill Clinton.  What trends become clear?  What major changes have occurred (civil service protection, for example)?
  • Analysis: How does the transition process from one president to the next affect federal employees and the operation of government?
  • Analysis: How does the transition of President Barack Obama compare with past transitions — especially that of President Franklin Roosevelt, who also faced a tough economic crisis, or Ronald Reagan, whose transition signalled a major shift in government emphasis and operation?

What other questions did your students find in this article?  Comments are open.


%d bloggers like this: