In praise of competence


Not long ago, I was in a meeting to talk about a public policy issue. It was a little complex, and as we considered the various angles I began to think about what it would take to translate talk into change on the ground. I wasn’t analyzing the politics of it — I was focused on the types of people who’d have to roll up their sleeves.

What I came away with was a list of skills, none of them unusual, but all of them vital to getting things done in the increasingly complicated world that government faces. Here’s some of what it takes:

You need a legislative draftsman, someone who understands the specialized language of bill-writing and how to translate ideas into law;

You’ll almost certainly need several lawyers involved to steer clear of legal shoals, as well as budget experts who can handle cost estimates and projections;

It’s helpful to have someone who understands what constitutes ethical and unethical behavior in the field you’re addressing;

There are a lot of subject matters that play a role in almost any major problem: environmental, financial, security and military, logistics, health, education, international dimensions — and you’ll want to be able to consult with experts in all of them;

Because, almost invariably, you’re dealing with computer systems or actual machinery, it’s helpful to have the appropriate types of engineers on hand;

It’s often helpful to work with a historian or two who can put the problem in context;

You need people who are familiar with the private sector and understand what businesses and corporations can and cannot reasonably achieve, since so many issues today involve both the public and private sectors;

You have to be able to understand and cover the politics of your approach, meaning you need people who can bridge the White House and Congress or the governor’s office and the legislature;

Somewhere along the line you’ll need PR experts who understand radio, print, TV, and social media, since you’ll have to enlist the public, or at least win its support;

And, of course, you’ll need to figure out how to raise the money you’ll need, both through the public purse and from the private and nonprofit worlds.

My point is simple: To make our system and this country work, we need a lot of experts and competent bureaucrats to deal with the problems that come cascading down on government. And here’s what I can tell you, after decades of close contact with federal civil servants: We have them. By and large, this country is served by a professional and dedicated group of public employees, whether you’re talking about the National Weather Service, the Foreign Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Defense Department… We’re blessed with a lot of talented people.

Which is why I’ve never shared the contempt and outright hostility toward federal bureaucrats that is so often expressed in the public arena these days. They deal with very tough problems and they’re usually good at what they do. They just don’t toot their own horns about it.

This was on full display in the recent House Intelligence Committee hearings on impeachment. As New York Times columnist David Brooks put it recently, “[T]he civil servant witnesses answering questions inspired a lot more confidence than the elected officials who were asking them.” He went on to quote political scientist Hugh Heclo, “It is when you deal with someone who does not perform in a ‘professional’ manner that you learn to appreciate those who do.”

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t some bad apples within the bureaucracy. There always are, but they’re rare. And most of the time, inspectors general, administrative processes, and, when it’s working, congressional oversight address the problems reasonably well. Attacking cabinet officials and civil service employees publicly, the way President Trump seems to enjoy doing, seems counter-productive. These are, after all, the very people he has to depend on to move his programs forward.

In the face of the many challenges we confront, the professionalism, talent, and competence of our civil servants matter. We’ve been fortunate: many of them have withstood attacks on themselves and the systems they depend on for support. So far.

By Lee H. Hamilton

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar of the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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