A modern, complex world favors nations capable of efficient, responsive, and highly professional management of the governmental function. As a nation, we suffer from a loss of confidence in “government”—and in government’s ability to deliver. Whether Republican or Democrat, libertarian or “socialist,” in favor of small or large government—one thing the COVID-19 crisis lays bare is that we are not very good at efficiently and effectively managing. This has nothing to do with the size of government, but with its effectiveness. We need a top-shelf, world-class bureaucracy, and given the multiple challenges we face, the sooner we get one the better.
Our cultural contempt for “bureaucracy” has become a weakness, and is one of the reasons we have not developed a professional class of managers specialized in high-level government management. Many of our agencies at the federal level are huge organizations, and if we want them to perform, they require a cadre of managers who should be as gifted and well-trained as our best managers in the private sector.
As Francis Fukuyama wrote recently in the Washington Monthly:
It has never been easy to be a public official in the United States. In contrast to other rich democracies in Europe and Asia, bureaucrats are not held in high esteem. In Germany, Japan, France, or Britain, the country’s best and brightest aspire to public service, whereas in the U.S. they go to the private sector or, if they are public spirited, into the NGO world rather than government service.
What we need is a graduate school of government management, an MBA program adapted to the specificities of government administration, where graduates would be placed into government positions upon graduation—the whole wrapped in the flag in order to attract top-tier applicants, keeping in mind the symbolic value of such an institution. Think of an MBA program with the feel of West Point, without the uniforms—marketed, designed to convey prestige, and channel ambitious young people who want to serve, or who want a balance between personal ambition and service to the general good.
Is this anti-democratic? On the contrary. Let us imagine a highly trained and proud pool of managers, dedicated to doing their jobs with an ethos similar to our military, steeped in an ethic of being responsive to elected officials. Such a professionalized bureaucracy would be more reliable and competent to execute the policy choices of those elected, giving them enhanced means with which to implement whatever policies they choose to put in place. Democratic processes with enhanced execution.
For instance, were we to decide on a national health program, this would require massive management capabilities. Do we have the managers for such a gargantuan task? And for a much-needed renewal of our infrastructure? We would need managers highly skilled at efficient use of capital, resource allocation, best practices in organizational design and management. American corporations have become extraordinarily innovative, efficient, and globally competitive. Why not our management of government functions?