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Saturday, October 4, 2014

Competence and the lack of it in our federal government

One of the truisms I've learned is a bureaucracy has only one purpose in life, to insure it's own existence. Hand and hand with that is the competence, or lack there of, in our government's higher echelons.

Lack week I commented on David Brooks piece on our national malaise and I was really annoyed of his faith in a "responsible leadership class". He implies the idiots we have in DC right now should be there because they come from the right schools, etc. The fact they are educated in the Ivy League means nothing, it's what happens after college that shows if they are qualified for leadership. (More on that later in this post)

Now Mr Walt is showing a rare example of what happens in a bureaucracy. Someone is fired because of incompetence. Notice he doesn't discuss the fact she should have never been there in the first place, but we'll let that go.
Competence Not Required
Julia Pierson’s ouster is the exception that proves the rule: In Washington it is nearly impossible to get fired.


Something unusual happened in Washington, D.C., this week: A federal official was fired ("resigned under pressure") for doing her job badly. I refer to former Secret Service chief Julia Pierson, who stepped down after a series of embarrassing revelations, most notably the recent incident during which an intruder managed to scale the fence, get across the grounds, and then get all the way inside the White House. And the Secret Service couldn't even get its version of events straight for several days.

But the remarkable thing about Pierson's departure is how rare something like this is. Politicians and government bureaucrats are sometimes ousted over a sex scandal, embezzlement, or bribery, or for saying something that is wildly inappropriate, but they rarely get fired for just doing their jobs poorly, especially in the realm of foreign and national security policy. This inadvertent form of job security may help explain why U.S. foreign policy hasn't performed very well in recent decades, and it may also explain why some major foreign-policy endeavors -- such as reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan -- have been plagued by mismanagement and billions of squandered dollars.

He goes on to criticize one member of the Bush administration after another, and a few of the Obama regime. Funny, he never brings up the the question of incompetence in B Hussein Obama himself. Or is that too much to ask for? Onward to some very salient points.
...I can think of at least six reasons that very few public officials ever suffer negative consequences (or the loss of their jobs) even when they screw up big time.

For starters, judging performance in these jobs is not like calculating a baseball player's batting average or a quarterback's efficiency rating. Failure to achieve a stated goal might reveal incompetence, but failure might also occur because the official was asked to do the impossible or simply because of bad luck. Moreover, nobody is infallible, and anyone who stays in office more than a few weeks is bound to make mistakes at least part of the time. If presidents or cabinet officials fired subordinates after the first mistake, after a few months there would be no one left to run the government.

Second, even though the United States is a country of 300-plus million people, there isn't a deep talent pool for a lot of policy jobs, especially when one has to worry not only about a person's competence but also his or her loyalty and political acceptability. So even when it's clear that an important official isn't doing an especially effective job, he or she might still be the best person available and so they stay on.

Third, some officials aren't chosen because they are known to be effective policy entrepreneurs or bureaucratic operators, but because they reinforce a president's political base or appease an important domestic constituency. Here policy success isn't what is critical; it is the contribution the person makes to continued presidential popularity. One could argue that this explains why Republicans and Democrats keep recycling the same failed Mideast peace negotiators: It would be nice if these individuals managed to deliver a final peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, but nobody really expects it and their real job is to keep that issue from blowing up and hurting the administration back home.

Fourth, it is harder to hold individuals accountable when foreign policy is made by committee via an elaborate interagency process and with dozens of people weighing in. The buck may stop at the president's desk -- and the voters will hold him responsible -- but it can be hard to tell whose fingerprints are really on a policy if lots of people have weighed in and many of them hedge to qualify their advice. When a policy succeeds, everyone involved looks good and they will try to claim credit; when it fails, those involved will point fingers, kick up dust, and try to make it harder for journalists, historians, and the public to identify exactly who was most to blame. Or as President John F. Kennedy famously remarked, "Victory has 100 fathers, and defeat is an orphan."

Fifth, lack of vigorous accountability is also an artifact of America's dominant global position. It isn't good when U.S. foreign policy fails, and it does involve real costs (especially to others). But none of the mistakes of the past 20 years -- and there have been some real doozies -- has left the United States open to invasion or even at much risk of a genuine threat to Americans' way of life. If pressed, I might even argue that the 2008 financial collapse did more to harm to America than any single foreign policy screw-up. Because the United States is so powerful and so secure, it can fail big time in lots of places and still end up mostly OK. When this is the case, however, the need to bring in the A Team and let it do its job will decline.

There is a final reason that accountability is rare. Members of the foreign-policy elite are often reluctant to hold each other to account because they know that it may eventually be their turn in the cross-hairs. "Judge not, lest ye be judged" is a sound career principle for foreign-policy insiders, and it encourages them to pull their punches when dealing with their counterparts' failings. Really big and visible mistakes can't be ignored and will have professional consequences, but even these errors tend to be forgiven over time.

None of this is to suggest that the United States (or anyone else) would be better off by trundling out the guillotine at the first sign of a screw-up. As noted above, we have to be somewhat tolerant of policy failure or policymakers will never try anything innovative or "outside the box." But at the same time, the United States probably shouldn't be as complacent and forgiving as it is. If people can make enormous errors repeatedly and still land top jobs when the political winds are blowing in the right direction, why should we ever expect U.S. foreign policy to improve?

Valid points and he is mindful of people in high positions will make mistakes that are costly. I recall in Eisenhower Volume I: Soldier, General of the Army, President-Elect, 1890-1952 Stephen Ambrose described Eisenhower's performance in the North African invasion as "miserable". However, mistakes made there were were learned and allowed him to preform better as the Supreme Commander of the Allied invasion of Europe.

But that won't happen in contemporary American government without a revolution. The Founding Fathers had a concept of a leadership class, but they would come up, serve for a short period and return to civilian life. Never in their worse nightmares would they conceive of the current Washington Class that only works to enrich themselves and is in the process of destroying, excuse me, fundamentally transforming, this country.

Again, back to leadership. Last week my friend Darren had an excellent post on this subject:
Right on the Left Coast: Views From a Conservative Teacher: Leadership:

Leadership is a topic that consumes a lot of time at West Point. Sometimes it's taught explicitly in leadership classes, sometimes it's merely modeled, but the concept is omnipresent. That doesn't mean that every West Point graduate is an ideal leader, far from it, but it does mean that every West Point graduate has had some of the best leadership training any person could hope to experience.

Some people are natural leaders, some learn how to lead. Any leadership skills I have are of the latter variety. And, contrary to the opinions of some, not everyone can be a good leader. I would assert that, with good training, anyone should be able to improve his/her leadership skills, but good instruction doesn't guarantee a good outcome.

Things we were taught in order to make us better leaders include:

1. Officers eat after the soldiers. It's a sign of leadership to take care of your people before you take care of yourself.

2. Don't ask your soldiers to do something you're unwilling to do. That should be obvious.

3. Take more than your fair share of the blame, and less than your fair share of the credit.

It's that last one that I'd like to focus on here for a moment. Nobody respects someone who takes credit for other people's work, and people do respect those who give them credit for the work they've done. It's just common sense. And if you give a little less blame than is merited, and a little more credit that might be merited, people appreciate and respect that. Making people feel valued is a key component of leadership....

Again, look at what infest the current federal government in all branches. Can any of the defended good points of leadership Darren made be shown of any (well, a few) members of the contemporary upper management? We all know the answer and without fundamentally transforming the Washington Class, this country is doomed to certain decline. The Democratic Party is beyond hop. And with the state of the current opposition in the Republican party, they are beyond impotent.

God help us all.

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