The American Interest
Democracy, Development & the Rule of Law
Published on July 22, 2013
“It’s Not the Business Plan but the Execution”

I have not posted anything to this blog in several months because I’ve been working to complete the second volume of my book on political development, which is tentatively titled Political Order and Political Decay: From the French Revolution to the Present. It complements The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, which appeared in 2011. The US and UK editions of Volume II, to be published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, and Profile Books, respectively, are due to come out in Sept. 2014. I have submitted a draft and will be working to edit and finalize it over the coming months.

If there is a single, overarching theme in the second volume, it has to do with the importance of states and state capacity in producing high-quality government. This is most obviously true in a developing country context, where weak states and poor governance have for long been understood to be at the source of poor economic development outcomes. But it is also a problem for developed countries as well, and in particular the United States. We have more democracy and rule of law around the world than ever before, but people remain dissatisfied with the way that modern governments deliver services, manage the economy, and respond to crises. Trust in government and in politicians more generally is at very low levels across many societies. Much of this has to do with the performance of executive agencies in the implementation of policies.

I argued in an earlier blog post that in the United States, we are up to our ears in public policy analysis but have not paid enough attention to old-fashioned public administration. While the US government many decades ago invested in schools of public administration to train professionals for government service, this function has atrophied in recent years. Virtually all public administration programs have evolved into public policy programs, where all the money and prestige is. Public policy analysis is dominated by economists who use sophisticated econometric techniques to design optimal policies. And yet, as most people who have actually served in government understand all too well, the real problem is less often knowing what to do, but rather the difficulty of getting the machinery of government to produce desired outcomes. The world of actual policy practice is a world of constraints that they don’t teach you about in many public policy programs. Many of these constraints are political in nature, so it you don’t understand the politics, you won’t get to execute your policies.  Paul Volcker has come to similar conclusions, which has led him to establish a new organization, the Volcker Alliance, to address the deficit on the implementation side of government. (In the interests of full disclosure, I’ve agreed to join his board.)

What I’d like to address in the next series of blog posts is the question, What constitutes effective government? I believe that the answer to this lies in some combination of state capacity and bureaucratic autonomy. The appropriate level of bureaucratic autonomy lies, in turn, in the manner in which policy mandates are handed off from the political principals to their bureaucratic agents. I’ll illustrate this in a series of examples, beginning with the way that the US Army redesigned its combined arms training during the 1990s.

For those interested in a more theoretical overview of these issues, I published a paper “What is Governance?” that is available either on the web site of the Center for Global Development or the journal Governance.

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  • Anthony

    Francis Fukuyama, importance of states and state capacity in producing high quality government turns on institutional historical governing patterns. High quality government is an abstract term when superimposed on various states with different historical institutions. Effective government, utilizing your models/approaches, assumes both centralized state power and operative political and economic systems that have degree of societal inconclusion – a test many 21st century states are yet grappling outside of our noted…

  • Dexter Trask

    Being a product of a public administration program, I would certainly agree with your analysis of the extent to which the prestige of public policy analysis dominates large parts of the field. I found it striking to see the differences in curricula between MPA programs housing in management/business schools and those in public policy/social science departments.

  • JT

    I think it is important to look at policy making and implementation process as a dynamic cycle in which the lessons from past experience feeds into new policy making. For that, candid assessment of the progress made and the lack thereof is critical. An independent accountability function within the broad government architecture such as GAO is key. But a broader framework to push the government to do better has to be present to ensure continuous improvement in government capacity. In that context, the roles that the media, academics and civil societies play are crucial.

  • Scott

    It sounds like education is not the answer for Public Admin – maybe an apprenticeship-system would be more appropriate? I spend a lot of time around the George Mason MPA program and I’m really not sure how much value it’s adding.

    On the implementation side big-think stuff is probably less relevant. Much more about keeping government close to the people it’s governing; administrors need to really identify with the population they’re serving or else things degenerate fast. Although there would certainly be a lot of value in emphasizing caution and redundancies in policy over optimization MBA-style.

  • Andy Freeman

    > What constitutes effective government? I believe that the answer to this lies in some combination of state capacity and bureaucratic autonomy.

    Huh? Bureaucratic autonomy is good only if the bureaucracy is better than what it is being kept separate from.

    Pretty much every DMV is a demonstration that bureaucracies can easily be worse than even the most vile political organization, such as the Detroit city council.

    • Clay Campaigne

      Take a look at the paper linked to in the article if you have access; your point is one of the claims of the paper. That is, the optimal level of autonomy depends on the level of effectiveness (“capacity”) of the bureaucracy.

  • JT

    I think it is important to look at policy making and implementation process as a dynamic cycle in which the lessons from past experience feed into new policy making. For that, candid assessment of the progress made and the lack thereof is critical. An independent accountability function within the broad government architecture such as GAO is key. But a broader framework to push the government to do better has to be present to ensure continuous improvement in government capacity. In that context, the roles that the media, academics and civil societies play are crucial.

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  • Clay Campaigne

    Thanks for the update on the progress of OPO Volume 2! I enjoyed the first one immensely and look forward to this one’s release.