Attention rivalry among leaders

Say you’re the president and you must appoint people to run all of the government’s agencies. Suppose your personality type leans toward the glam and the glitz – that you like being in the spotlight. Since that’s your type, maybe that’s what you respect in other leaders, too.  

You get your wish and appoint a bunch of similar people to all of the government’s agencies. Of course, unless you are a master of surveillance, you really don’t know what they’re doing once they’ve taken up the positions. 

But you could predict that they also like being in the spotlight. In DC, that means saying notable things to gain attention in the press. How long is it until one or more say things that are either antithetical to the Administration agenda or downright embarrassing?

My bet: not long. Presidential administration isn’t like running the WWE, where every eye-catching quote is scripted. It’s more like herding tigers. The best way to do so is to remove their fangs. 

Inaction as leadership

I get it – people want change. But 95 percent of the time things don’t change.  And sometimes that is what prudential leadership requires.

Imagine a world in which a leader’s very words can make change happen. The leader speaks, people listen, and social processes turn those actions into new outcomes. 

In that world, how easy it to forecast the full range of new outcomes? And given how bad humans are at forecasting, how big are your confidence intervals around that forecast? What are the chances that the leader’s speech precipitates a black swan event?

If the leader sits at the middle of a complex social web, if the leader is that influential, most of the time the leader shouldn’t speak. Most of the time the leader shouldn’t intervene. 

An angry, flailing, irrational leader is a dangerous one -just because of the high probability of unintended consequences. Most reserved, calm, rational leadership is pretty boring. 

Negotiating by threat

People are saying that an Indiana corporation has decided to keep some of its workforce here in the US (instead of offshoring) after negotiating with the incoming Administration. The workers who might have lost their jobs are certainly grateful. 

But what about the next company considering offshoring operations? Modern supply chain management exists so that companies can do exactly that. And there are many companies and not all are located in states that the Administration holds dear. 

Moreover, why wouldn’t companies now threaten exit? Of course, they’ve done this for years in terms of relocating to other states or outside the country. But rarely have presidents intervened in such situations. 

And for good reason. These bilateral negotiations are fraught with opportunities for holdup and other nastiness. And what real leverage do presidents have in such situations unless they wield serious tariffs? They can offer incentives, of course, but that just means more future negotiations with others threatening exit. 

Perhaps the most interesting aspect is what it says about how this Administration will do business. Is everything a personalized deal? Witness the recent naming of Elaine Chao as Secretary of Transportation. 

It’s hard to maintain consistency in such situations. And even harder to keep it going when deals break down. Especially when it’s clear you are responsive to threats. 

Hyperbole makes management harder

There are at least two problems when a leader describes situations as “terrible”. One is that it requires action – “so what are you going to do about it?” So there were “millions of fraudulent votes” in the election? Fix it!

Another results from overuse of the word “terrible”. If everything is terrible, if everything is a priority, nothing is.

Certainly this rhetorical strategy works for grabbing attention, but it’s a terrible strategy for management. 

Three changes public employees should expect in the coming years

  1. Changes to their pension systems. This includes the possibility of changes to arrangements for current retirees. Given that some public employees aren’t eligible for social security benefits, changes could have significant social consequences. 
  2. The growing importance of state and local government.  Already many new graduates of MPA programs seek employment at the local government level due to greater opportunities and security. 
  3. Lateral employment opportunities with private contractors. These are particularly interesting for those who have reached retirement age. 

Thankful for peaceful transitions of power

I’ll take a break from writing about governance issues during the Thanksgiving break – although I may occasionally tweet a bit on the subject. 

Thanksgiving presents an opportunity to consider what is going on right now as we move from one administration to the next. Most importantly, there has been a peaceful transition of power. This is happening even though there’s a substantial difference between the EC vote and the popular vote. It’s happening even though there are substantial geographic differences in opinion – even as the coasts, where most economic activity occurs, voted disproportionately against Trump.  

It’s silly for people to claim that the mostly civil disobedience that has happened against the incoming Administration is anywhere near the levels seen in countries that lack peaceful transitions. Instead of baiting by claiming that the “rioters” are “running wild in the streets”, we should be thankful things have changed peacefully. 

The relevance of public management

The news is full of stories suggesting that change is coming to the federal government. It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that the government, and its employees, will be less-relevant for the next few years. 

On the contrary, I believe the average American knows that government is becoming more important, and that those same Americans will depend even more on the typical bureaucrat.  

Here are a few reasons why:

  1. The typical bureaucrat works in local government, not at the federal level. Even with the rhetoric about federal hiring freezes, federal employment is at the lowest nominal level since the late 1960s. In contrast, there are more local government employees than at any point in the past, and even state government hiring is picking up. 
  2. The use of PPPs, like all other contracting, requires overseers. All credible public administration programs know that contract management is one of the most important skills. For years, the modal DOD employee has been a contractor, and similar dynamics have been in play at agencies like the CDC. Many PA programs train their students for placement in firms like Deloitte as well as traditional public management opportunities. PPPs are not new. 
  3. Every weak political appointee will require strong civil servant support if this Administration wants to accomplish anything. Consider how long GSA has worked to make marginal changes to federal contracting rules. Those rules create litigation opportunities for aggrieved potential contractors. Amending rules takes time and knowledge. Even K Street hasn’t historically focused on that level of play. 
  4. Pending federal retirements were already creating substantial demand for high quality replacements. Maybe you could hold them empty or staff with contractors, but see above. The demand for policy action just switches a level.
  5. Imagine that we’re in a new political regime defined by crony capitalism and kleptocracy. Who’s the bulwark – the defense? Usually the civil servants. Just as a reminder, the modal bureaucrat at the federal level is a military officer. At the state and local levels, it’s a police officer or schoolteacher. That won’t change. And as always, they are the defenders of democracy. (Throw in the independent agencies like the Fed for good measure.)

Public management has never been more relevant. Most American voters didn’t vote for this Administration. That creates unique challenges for governance and for claiming a mandate. 

It also makes our civil servant and military infrastructures even more important. Diligence is called for, especially with regard to civil service protections that have helped support the country’s social and economic development for the past century. But relevance isn’t under question.