Ladies and Gentlemen, Get Ready—Again, Alas—for the Great Political Placebo

By J.F. McKenna


Much like the medicine-show wagon of old, the government-reform campaign swings through our fruited plain once again, signaling promised health to the fatigued body politic while actually peddling the same old rhetorical sugar water, in high-tech packaging this time ‘round.

The latest elixir is “Doc Barack’s Best.”

Pitching his government-efficiency plan as a strategy two years in the making, President Obama says he wants government agencies to work smarter. As The Washington Times reported July 8, “The president …wants to model the government’s delivery of services on user-friendly technologies deployed by Google and by his re-election campaign, to save taxpayers at least $2.5 billion per year. He met with his cabinet Monday, the second such gathering of his second term, to urge agency heads to find ways to make government work more efficiently.”

Discount the Google additive in this current concoction and you’ll swear you’ve heard the hyperbolic pitch before. The lyrics may be a little hipper, but the tune is a Beltway standard.

Oh, no! Doc Barack assures, proudly pointing to the government’s response to Superstorm Sandy as a working example of improved efficiency. POTUS, the newspaper reported, “said FEMA agents armed with iPads went door-to-door to sign up residents for disaster relief.” And, sans gene, Doc Barack advises the faithful to ignore the naysayers standing on the outer ring of his medicine wagon, particularly the homeowners and business who still gripe that federal aid was too slow to arrive. Things are only going to get better, good ‘ol Doc says.

Democrat Rep. Nydia M. Velazquez of New York is one of the folks who remain dubious. She recently carped to the Government Accountability Office that the Small Business Administration had been slower to process applications and disburse funds for Sandy victims than it had after Hurricane Ike in 2008 and Hurricane Irene in 2011.

“It had taken the SBA an average of 43 days to review applications from companies damaged by Sandy, compared with a two-week turnaround the agency reported after hurricanes Ike and Irene, Ms. Velázquez said.” So the Times chronicled. “Of the SBA loan money approved, only about 15 percent was issued in the five months after the storm, down from about 40 percent delivered in the first five months after Irene.”

Mere if regrettable details. “We’re making sure that we’re delivering services better, faster, more efficiently,” the President now promises.

Such calming assurances aside, how much of “Doc Barack’s Best” will have to be poured on Obamacare to make it work? And will the stuff actually cure the spendthrift ills and bureaucratic maladies of the IRS?

Myself, I’m about as skeptical as Rep. Velázquez these days. A long time ago I pedaled the brand Total Quality Government with unmatched enthusiasm. As I reported from this corner two years ago, I had been inspired by onetime Mayor Joe Sensenbrenner, who had led Madison, Wis., through an unprecedented quality transformation in the 1980s. I had been wholly impressed by his customer-first success story in the otherwise bland pages of Harvard Business Review. And this grandson of an old-time city politician had even swooned over the proselytizing of David Carr and Ian Littman, co-authors of Excellence in Government: Total Quality Management in the 1990s.

“Using modern quality management to save one out of every five dollars in government operations costs, while actually improving services to the public, is a realistic and maybe even a modest goal,” Carr had told me. “Private companies have saved as much, and some public agencies are well on their way.”

Over time political reality set in, once again. The proclivity toward venality trumped the desire for the more perfect union. I heard echoes of Mark Twain and The Gilded Age: “No country can be well governed unless its citizens as a body keep religiously before their minds that they are the guardians of the law, and that the law officers are only the machinery for its execution, nothing more.”

Irrepressible optimist that I am, I haven’t abandoned the idea of good government. But I’m convinced that a refitting of an old medical saying is in order—Citizens, heal yourselves. Government reform starts and ends with the governed and with their demand that public servants meet the set goals of well-run, cost-effective governance.

Peter Drucker, the founding father of modern management, explained it all in 1985: “The first priority in talking about the public policies and governmental measures needed in the entrepreneurial society is to define what will not work—especially as the policies that will not work are so popular today. Planning as the term is commonly understood is actually incompatible with entrepreneurial society and economy….But innovation, almost by definition, has to be decentralized, ad hoc, autonomous, specific and microeconomic.”

In short, there just ain’t no miracle cure coming out of city hall, Congress or The White House. To believe anything else is to invite yet another political medicine show to roll through town.

CBR contributor J.F. McKenna, a longtime West Park resident, is a business journalist, communications consultant and former editor of the national manufacturing magazine Tooling & Production. He has chased stories throughout the country and as far away as Japan, Israel and that most exotic of financial lands, Wall Street. As an editor at Industry Week magazine in the early 1990s, he co-chaired Total Quality Government conferences in Boston, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Reach him at or through his LinkedIn profile: Jos. F. McKenna.


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