Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Beltway Blues Reprises Familiar Melody

There’s always the day when the government reformer comes face-to-face with the government reality.

That’s happened in short order to President Barack Obama, and unfortunately, part of it seems to be of his own making.

There’s a reason that Sears couldn’t reinvent itself to become Wal-Mart. There’s a reason that Washington insiders can’t be expected to reinvent the government from which their power flows.

That’s why the appointment of so many Washington-first Cabinet members to lead the Obama Administration has in short order stifled the president’s ability to change the tone, culture and results of the federal government. We hope it’s only temporary.

Nuke It

It’s no secret that one of the toughest challenges of an organization is to change its culture and to find people who are able to work outside of their comfort zones to do it. When the organization has an annual budget of more than $3 trillion and a workforce of 15 million, it’s hard to change things with a nuclear warhead. But it’s next to impossible when those in charge of the warhead are part and parcel of the organization they have been chosen to blow up.

It’s reminiscent of the story about Sam Walton, who was asked why Sears didn’t evolve into Wal-Mart. His reply was that Sears was too invested in its own legacy systems, so every idea of change began with those systems as its context and with the presumption that those systems would remain.

And so it is inside the Beltway. People who have risen to power within the current government structure can hardly be expected to suddenly don the mantle as agents of change. Too often, political appointees act on the understanding that their time is limited and so the emphasis is on consolidating power and establishing a platform for the next job.

Meanwhile, the bureaucracy simply marks time. They know that they only need to adopt the new language of the new administration, but nothing requires them to change their behavior. As a result, much of it acts on the presumption that it can wait it out. There will always be a new administration – remember Al Gore’s campaign to reinvent the federal government.

Real Change

To them, it’s always easier, not to mention safer, to say no than to say yes. It’s easier to mark time and stay there forever than take a risk at innovation and lose their jobs if it doesn’t work. So, they give lip service to change, but in the end, they are prisoners of the bureaucratic rules and regulations they created.

As a result, there may be much talk about an innovative economic stimulus package, but in the end, the nearly trillion dollars will be sent to long-time federal employees who’ll plug the money into the existing bureaucratic pipeline. For example, the grand ambitions for housing will be funneled into HUD whose byzantine processes are likely to drain all imagination from cities’ proposals.

Stanford University economist Paul Romer famously said that “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” It can create the conditions in which it clarifies priorities, it aligns resources, it mobilizes change, it morphs rigidity into innovation, and it fuels change that comes more quickly and is more far-reaching.

In this way, the current crisis can be and must ultimately be the catalyst for a new way of conducting the public’s business. In the best of times, decisions made today would be crucial, but gripped in a national economic crisis, there is no margin for error.

Breaking Away

To compete and win in the race for good-paying jobs in the knowledge economy and for economic success, American cities must have strong, healthy neighborhoods; pathways from welfare dependency to self-sufficiency; a vibrant, active downtown; and hubs of vitality that anchor areas of the city and bind together to expand our economy, sense of purpose and a clear plan of action.

President Obama has shown that he has not lost his way. Already, he’s taken action on several fronts that are overdue – stem cells, environment, Guantanamo, family planning, and much more. As significant as any of these is something that we have not seen for 20 years – an admission that he made a mistake in appointments of two key Administration nominees who had to resign on the same day for failure to pay their full taxes.

And yet, the admission wasn’t broad enough. He’s got to be realizing that it was a mistake to put so much confidence on people plugged into the revolving door of Washington influence and power. If the great unwashed public was shocked by the recent withdrawals, it wasn’t so much because the nominees didn’t pay their taxes, but because the circumstances surrounding that failure spoke volumes about the privilege and the entitlements of the Washington elite.

The president pledged to break the rules in the Capital to change the way that Washington works – petty, partisan and personal agendas. He needs every member of his cabinet to take on the profile of organizational change agents. Otherwise, his promises will be even harder to keep.

Beltway Blues

It’s just hard to serve the interests of cities when there’s no one who’s served in elected office of a city or who has had to make the daily decisions that face city mayors and affect the lives of average Americans. It’s hard to serve the interests of small businesses – the source of most new jobs – when you’ve never met a payroll or been forced to call your friends and family for operating capital.

The election of President Obama was, if nothing else, a repudiation of the K Street culture characterized by influence, special privilege, relationships for profit and a chauffeured view of urban problems. Already, the news media are overstating the problems and sensationalizing every disagreement.

Clearly, it will be difficult to build bipartisan coalitions, particularly when any stumble becomes an occasion for partisan piling on. In the end, however, we think that the president and his men will come closer to success if they keep their fingers on the pulse of middle American rather than Beltway big shots.


The Architect said...

A thorough, excellent analysis of the opportunities that exist within our current crisis. I appreciate your forward vision...we can only hope that President Obama and his team will continue to break the cycles that have brought to today's grim realities. Wouldn't it be nice if others followed his lead in Memphis?


You have to break people out of their comfort zones to change culture. That's a fundamental law of cultural change. If you wait till you find people like that, you'll be waiting as a profession.
They aren't required to change culture and if they were it would be insincere. They have to see the value and see that it is valuable, more valuable for them, to adopt the new way.
The president is well versed in the framework and mechanical principles of this. He will get it done. Once it is there will be no other way seen as valuable, no going back.

Tom Guleff said...


Just wondering. Just this hold true for politicos in Memphis and Shelby County ?

Smart City Consulting said...


Funny you should ask. I was thinking that this applies here as well, but as usual, I had already written too long, so I didn't mention that. But I think it's a fair analogy.

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