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The "Yes We Can" Multiplier

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The year was 1961. The venue was the spacious, deeply carpeted office of the secretary of a major cabinet department - one of the "best and brightest" recruited by the newly installed administration of President John F. Kennedy.

The audience assembled for this morning meeting consisted of the department's fifty or so most senior officers - those civil servants we refer to as bureaucrats, the ones who stay at their desks regardless of which party wins the White House.

"Good morning," began the secretary. "I asked you here this morning because I want to share with you - and get your feedback on - a new policy idea I have." His idea, he said, "has the potential to make a substantial contribution to our economy."

Then followed fifteen minutes of way-down-in-the-weeds detail. Finally, having laid out his idea, the secretary concluded his presentation with the question, "What do you think?"

After what seemed an endless silence, the most senior audience member rose, cleared his throat, and said:

"That's a brilliant idea, Mr. Secretary. In fact, I thought it was brilliant when I heard it from Herbert Hoover when he was Secretary of Commerce."

Next month, similarly unfortunate meetings could be taking place throughout the government. The presenters of the brilliant new ideas will be some of the 3,000-plus political appointees tapped by President Barack Obama to occupy the top leadership positions in our hundreds of Federal departments, agencies and commissions.

Some of them may indeed present truly new ideas. But the chances are good that many of the brainstorms proffered to these career public servants will have been heard before.

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Because, in the heady environment of every new administration, it's all too easy to persuade yourself that you and your fellow appointees have a monopoly on wisdom.

And that means you are about to miss a huge opportunity. Because the career civil service folks who now report to you are the aggregate repositories of centuries of experience. They know where the machinery is and where the skeletons are buried. They are the folks - the only folks -- who know how to turn good policy into good programs that actually work.

Now, aside from peddlers of sub-prime mortgages, contractors who rip off the government, and governors who demand a quid pro quo before funding a children's hospital, there are probably few groups as savagely maligned as career public servants. We blame them for Katrina. For torture. For failing to police the greed of Wall Street. For disgracing the Justice Department. For invading Iraq. For cozying up to the world's worst dictators. For giving Osama his get-out-of-jail card.

But our scorn is sadly misplaced. In the vast majority of cases, the failures we seem so ready to attribute to our civil servants are the failures of their leaders - those "best and brightest" appointed by the president. 

Now, no administration in our history has ever been immune from appointing a few total disasters to senior posts. But not since George W. Bush won the White House in 2000 have we have witnessed the magnitude of incompetence, indifference, arrogance, cronyism - even criminality - we have suffered during the past eight years.

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The clueless "Brownie" of FEMA infamy became emblematic of the failure of leadership - but only emblematic. The Bush Administration had hundreds of Brownies hard at work giving government a bad name. Arguably, that was the only job at which they were wildly successful.

To be fair, however, the staggering mediocrity of the Bushies was not solely the responsibility of the president. Many of W's nominees were Senate-confirmable, so Congress shares the blame for confirming them, and also for failing to hold them accountable by exercising any meaningful oversight.

Hopefully, the emphasis the Obama transition team has put on the combination of experience, imagination, and solid track records will help to improve the performance of government - at least that part of it the Bushies haven't outsourced to private contractors.

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William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and elsewhere for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development. He served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy Administration and now (more...)

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