Most people think the government can’t organize a two car funeral. Back in the 1990s that was one of President Bill Clinton’s favorite sayings, reflecting the deep and pervasive skepticism
Americans feel about government. Today things are much worse.
As one alumnus of the Clinton administration put it, instead of worrying that the government can’t organize a two car funeral, “now they worry that one of the two cars should have been recalled and the other can’t go anywhere because Congress is still fighting over whether to fix the road.”
For most of their lives, Americans have experienced a blizzard of governmental failure. This has not always been so. The grandparents and great- grandparents of these same Americans knew a federal government that rescued the country from the Great Depression, defeated Germany and Japan in World War II, and transformed the United States into an economic and military superpower. Since then, Americans have experienced humiliation in Vietnam, setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan, a disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina, a ruinous financial crisis and economic meltdown and continuing impotence against terrorism.
Little wonder there is a sentiment out there that the country is on an inevitable and precipitous downward slope that the government can’t do anything about. This sentiment is evident in the disenchantment among the citizens who voted for “Making America Great Again” with President Donald Trump. At the beginning of the new century more than half of all Americans were satisfied with the way things were going in the United States. And then a long slow decline began, uninterrupted by changes in leadership and party or by events good and bad.
Today we face a crisis of honesty, integrity, mental and political competence in the American presidency. Although contemporary American politics has been categorized as the most polarized in decades, another theme is emerging— competence. This theme is so pervasive that
questions about competence have joined arguments between the right and left as a driver in the political conversation.
Citizens have lost faith in their leaders and in the government they are supposed to run.
Why do presidents fail? This question deserves an explanation. Americans need to
understand the background of presidential failure.
Success happens when the president is able to put together and balance three sets
of skills: policy, communication, and implementation. When there is no balance, when the components of leadership are out of whack, failure follows. There is nothing new about this
theory of leadership. As far back as the 1920s, Mary Parker Follett, one of the seminal figures in leadership studies, argued that the talent of a leader was the ability to think holistically.
POLICY COMMUNICATION IMPLEMENTATION
As in politics, leaders in business fail when they cannot execute. In a well- known book on business leadership, Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan put it this way: “When companies fail to deliver on their promises, the most frequent explanation is that the CEO’s strategy was wrong. But the strategy by itself is not often the case. Strategies most often fail because they aren’t executed well. Things that are supposed to happen don’t happen. In politics as in business, the ability to deliver matters. Modern presidents may get elected because of their ability to inspire us and make us feel good. But they succeed, both in the short term and over the long term, by their actual ability to do good. When presidents fail they often have trouble getting all three things— policy, communication, and implementation—right at the same time. And it’s getting worse. When we add lying, malignant narcissistic behaviors, manipulation and blatant “not listening” to advisors, into the mix – a “cocktail” of disaster follows. We are seeing this in the current president and his inability to run the country.
Yet despite having all this expertise at their disposal, modern presidents are failing to put it all together and, hence, are failing the leadership test. Samuel Kernell, in his classic book, Going Public, shows that modern presidents have spent more and more time talking to the public and traveling— which means less time on the job. In other words, modern presidents have lost the balance required for good leadership; they spend so much time talking that they mistake talking for doing. Their closest advisers tend to be the people they campaigned with, people who are skilled in the art of communicating but not in the art of governing.
POLICY COMMUNICATION IMPLEMENTATION
The obsession with communication— presidential talking and text messaging endlessly— is a dangerous mirage of the media age, a delusion that inevitably comes crashing down in the face of
governmental failure. This moment is perfectly illustrated in a cartoon by Mike Peters, which appeared during the Reagan administration. The actor- turned- president is seated in the Oval Office, surrounded by television cameras, about to give a national address on the recession, and an aide is saying to him, “Mr. President . . . Don’t you understand? This is real. . . This is actually happening. . . . We can’t change the script.” George C. Edwards III argues that presidents often have a false sense of their ability to persuade the public to support them. But if presidents cannot avoid legislative failures through their communication strategies, how can they hope to avoid implementation failures?
Policy and implementation failures end up having severe and long- lasting impacts on presidential power (far more so than communications failures), and presidents have a hard
time rebounding from them. And yet almost no one talks about the skills presidents need to avoid the kinds of failures that are so devastating to their presidencies— the skills of presidential management.
The challenge for modern presidents is to add some governing skills to their campaign skills— or, in other words, to stop talking long enough to figure out how to govern. We have had
the “imperial presidency” and the “rhetorical presidency”; perhaps it is now time to focus on what the political scientist James P. Pfiffner calls the “managerial presidency”— the relationship between the president and the bureaucracy he or she controls. If presidents spent as much time on the business of the government as they do on their next press conference or “texting”, they might figure out how to mine the federal government for its vast knowledge and resources and learn how to see the warning signs in order to preempt large- scale screw-ups.
President Trump cries about the “evil” press, the “witch hunt”, the “this is hard” and “everyone is out to get me” rhetoric. Until we elect presidents who stop feeling like victims of the federal government and instead learn how to lead it, our presidents will continue to fail.
The literature on decision-making begins with Herbert A. Simon’s insight that public policy decision-making operated within “bounded rationality.” The complexity of public policy means that, according to Simon and James G. March, there are cognitive limits to rationality, and thus presidents have to use techniques like “satisficing” and sequential search processes to arrive at a decision. Graham T. Allison’s landmark book on President John F. Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis further explored the limits to rationality, as did his more recent work with Philip Zelikow. The literature on presidential advisory systems explores the virtues of cabinet government versus staff advice and of “multiple advocacy” and “honest brokers.”
The assumption of “neutral competence” has been a constant since creation of the modern civil service. But as Hugh Heclo understood and as the implementation literature shows, the two
cannot really be divorced: Neutral competence is more of a normative ideal than an actual way of behaving. If implementation is important to federal decision makers in Washington well below the level of the president, why is it not also important to the president himself? In the business world, the key to the successful execution or implementation of a strategy is understanding an organization’s capacity. The same is true in government— with the difference that the organizations are bigger and that they are, by and large, monopolies. Dysfunctional private- sector organizations will eventually reveal themselves in their balance sheets. In the absence of competition, public- sector dysfunction can go on for decades before the consequences become obvious.
In politics as in business, success often depends on understanding and changing the organizational culture. In fact, there are consulting firms that service corporate America by performing “cultural diagnostics.” What this amounts to is understanding, and often changing, the belief structure of the organization.
While many of the principles of execution or implementation are familiar to anyone
who leads a large organization, the modern federal government exists on a scale that dwarfs even the largest private enterprises. And it responds not just to the president but to an
equally powerful collection of 535 bosses in Congress. The sheer scale of the enterprise presents challenges to anyone attempting to lead it and to figure out what it can and can’t do.
The modern presidency is not impossible, but it does require a reorientation of the presidency itself— toward the complex and boring business of government and away from the preoccupation with communicating.
(Written by Dr. Kathie Mathis and some content taken and rewritten from https://www.brookings.edu/wpcontent/uploads/2016/07/Introduction-7.pdf)