High-Performance Government: Structure, Leadership, Incentives

Robert Klitgaard and Paul C. Light, Editors

Publisher: RAND Corp., 2005

$40.00 hardcover

Come on, admit it. We all do it, and we do it a lot. We moan, gripe and complain about how poorly our government is run. The standard American political campaign -- from dogcatcher to president -- is built around it. And if you haven't done it in a while, tax season or a visit to any Department of Motor Vehicles on the first of the month will turn many of us into temporary sufferers of Tourette's syndrome. High-Performance Government, edited by Robert Klitgaard and Paul C. Light, takes an academic look at the problems of structure, leadership and incentives at the federal level.

People live longer; we are religiously and racially more diverse; and technologies have, and are, changing the way we work, produce food, communicate and care for ourselves. Globalization, the extraordinary needs of developing nations and the availability of weapons of mass destruction are all putting pressure on our government to respond.

We expect more from our government than ever before, yet our level of trust in our institutions is declining. The challenges of government continue to grow, yet we don't want it to grow in size to meet the challenges. The demand for ever increasing services like medical care for the elderly are driving the costs of government ever higher, yet we expect -- no, we demand -- tax cuts, thus destroying the ability of government to pay for the services we demand. A natural side effect is the runaway deficits of the last few years caused by the expansion of services in the wake of 9/11, coupled by reductions in collections exacerbated by very popular tax cuts. If the solution to public-sector problems is to transform our government to act more like a business, then our business will have a very tough go, because we are not an easy customer to please.

The structure and content of High-Performance Government was inspired by the work of the Volcker Commission. In 2003, the commission made 14 discrete recommendations to improve the public sector. The recommendations are, of course, solid, well articulated and seemingly common sense. The case for federal-level change is based on how the work of the public sector has changed. The government of 1950 was largely one of clerks. More than half of the General Schedule (GS) employees occupied grades at or below GS-4 -- less than $28,000 per year. Today, more than half of the federal work force is employed at the top grades of GS-11 -- approximately $44,000 to $57,000 -- and above. This shift has resulted primarily in a greater demand for skills that support a more technically complex world.

Government structures should follow missions -- this bit of common sense is at the heart of the Volcker Commission and High-Performance Government. However, common sense faces tough opposition from the entrenched organizational structures that have developed over time in both government and the special interests that protect the status quo. On one side are the rational arguments proposed by seemingly every new person who enters government. Simply stated, things don't work as they should and we should reform. On the other side are those who quickly point out that there are politics at work and change isn't so easy. The result is our current system of gridlock and frustration.

I want to give high praise to High-Performance Government for including many specific examples of where positive change has already occurred in government. Many of the book's recommendations are expansions on what has already worked.

As someone who has spent a career providing technology services to government, however, many of the recommendations give me pause. I hesitate not because the recommendations are bad; they are good recommendations. What gives me such trepidation is my belief that most problems governments face have to do with issues of power and human interaction.

If there is one overarching theme and recommendation of High-Performance Government, it is a belief that many solutions of government will occur through the adoption of new technologies -- information technology being foremost. Though this is certainly good news for the readers and advertisers of this publication, we must understand the implications of having so great a burden put upon our collective shoulders. Technology properly implemented can, has and will continue to improve efficiency and lower costs.

But technology cannot, and never will, solve the core issues of government.

Keith Comstock  |  Contributing Writer