Much of my life has been spent in institutions dedicated to public policy: the State Department, the Rand Corporation and the Rand Graduate School, George Mason’s School of Public Policy, Johns Hopkins SAIS, and now Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law. People in these places make policy, give advice about what governments should do, or else try to equip students with high-powered techniques to achieve the same end.
As I’ve gotten older, however, I’ve come to realize that the emphasis put on public policy is mistaken, and that what we should be focusing on and teaching is basic public administration.
There, I’ve said it. Uttering the words “public administration” usually puts people into an instant stupor, or else sends them scrambling to check for messages on their iPhones. But in fact, the biggest problems we face in contemporary governance are often not related to what the government should do, but rather how to actually get the existing machinery to implement a policy that everyone can agree upon.
There are no end of examples of this. In many developing countries, before you can even address the question of the best public school curriculum, you have to solve the problem of getting teachers to show up for their classes every day. My Stanford colleague Scott Rozelle describes an initiative in rural China to get school principals to encourage anemic children to take daily vitamin tablets, the cognitive advantages of which had been proven beyond a doubt. This policy was stymied when the principals gave out eggs instead (which contain no iron), and the parents could not be persuaded to comply–and this in an authoritarian country where everyone assumes the government’s orders will be obeyed.
When it comes to the United States, we of course argue about the direction of policy–higher or lower taxes, whether to build a pipeline through the Midwest, etc. But anyone who has spent time in government realizes that the real questions that preoccupy officials have to do with implementation, or rather, the impossibility of implementing many desirable policies because of the huge number of constraints under which modern governments work. This is certainly the observation of another Stanford colleague, Jeremy Weinstein, who has just returned from Stanford after a stint on the Obama administration’s National Security Council working on democracy and development issues. Despite huge efforts to reform the civilian side of our foreign policy apparatus, aid programs in critical countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan are a mess. Poor implementation undercuts US foreign policy goals, as in the case of the botched occupation of Iraq.
Fixing the public sector therefore has got to be a top priority for anyone interested in public policy. In countries where public services work relatively efficiently, like those in Scandinavia, people are willing to tolerate high tax levels because they think they’re getting something back. In the US, however, as in Latin America, many people object to higher taxes because they are convinced that the government will simply waste their money. The inability to implement effectively affects what policies will be chosen; the Obama administration’s arguments for universal health care in the US would have been much more persuasive if people thought the government could deliver on its promises.
So: stop worrying about public policy, and go back to humbler concerns about public administration. Solve that, and you’ll rise to the top politically.