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It's Time to End the Ideological War on Our Government

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For over three decades, from the Presidential campaigns of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, to the mindless response to the State of the Union address by Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, America's government has been under relentless attack. I believe that the effectiveness of this attack is finally beginning to recede, as Americans are beginning to understand the necessity of an active and competent government.

I am not arguing that government does not need to be improved. I have spent most of my career working to improve government's effectiveness and efficiency, and along with colleagues, have written a number of books with titles like: The Effective Public Manager, Total Quality Management in Government, Tools for Innovators: Creative Strategies for Managing Public Sector Organizations and The Responsible Contract Manager: Protecting the Public Interest in an Outsourced World. I know that government's performance needs improvement. I've taught thousands of students the importance of effective public management, and for many years have worked to understand government's record of failure and success. Any scholar of public administration knows that government is far from perfect. But private management has its Enron moments too. Management is an imperfect activity of imperfect human beings. That said, it is obvious that we need an effective government if we are to survive and thrive in the 21st century's global economy. The right-wing strategy of "starving the beast" and calling government the problem misses the point and if it is not reversed will result in America's long-term decline.

We need an effective government because we have some needs as individuals, communities and as a nation that cannot be provided by the market. Capitalism is a terrific system for many purposes, but not for all purposes. While private companies are deeply involved in government's work, modern government requires a partnership between public and private organizations. Defense, police, fire, sanitation, water, pollution control, transportation infrastructure, education and many health and welfare functions require substantial and hopefully competent government participation.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, here in the battered Northeast, we were treated to the spectacle of our ridiculous House of Representatives wasting 100 valuable days before finally enacting the full $60 billion aid package we should have seen immediately after the storm. Three months of delayed repairs and needless suffering was caused by ideological warfare that weakens our national community. While much of the work of post-Sandy recovery will be managed by state and local governments, the funding for rapid and massive reconstruction requires federal dollars. No state or locality can afford to pay the sudden expenses caused by catastrophe.

Most of the ideological attack on government is focused on the federal government, and while state and local governments are continuing to fill the vacuum created by declining federal action, the problems we are ignoring are not going away. It's true that many problems are best solved at the local level, but some, such as climate change, the economy and gun control require the scope and size of the federal government. I can't help but contrast the President's State of the Union Address to NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg's recent State of the City Address. President Obama is still trying to get the climate change skeptics in Congress to modernize America's climate policy and adopt a cap-and-trade policy. Because it is unlikely to pass, he must continue to rely on the command and control regulation of the Clean Air Act to set a regulatory cap on greenhouse gasses, while being denied the authority to set a more cost efficient policy that allows polluters to buy and sell pollution allowances. In New York, Mayor Bloomberg does not just talk about climate change policy, he is able to report on the progress the City has made in implementing local climate policy. After detailing a set of programs to increase energy efficiency and the use of electric vehicles, mass transit, and bicycles Bloomberg observed that:

"All of these transportation initiatives will help us achieve one of PlaNYC's top goals: giving New York the cleanest air of any big city in the country. Remember: Clean air means you live longer. Even if you don't care about climate change, cleaning our air is good for your health. Speaking of climate change, we've reduced our carbon footprint by 16 percent in just five years. Now, we'll challenge the city's leading corporations to join City government in cutting their carbon footprints by 30 percent in ten years."

Bloomberg's speech highlighted dozens of examples of public-private partnerships ranging from the development of a new sports arena and housing to the construction of new engineering programs at Cornell and Columbia universities. He and his team have worked to create a sophisticated and productive relationship with the city's business community. While Mayor Bloomberg does not receive unanimous support for any of his programs, at least he does not have to waste his time defending the need for New York City to have an active and creative government.

President Obama is not afforded that luxury. In his State of the Union address, the President detailed some specific actions we need to take to respond to the challenges we face and Senator Marco Rubio responded with the same old tired argument that: "More government isn't going to help you get ahead. It's going to hold you back." Rubio's response comes from the middle of the Republican right-wing. At least he still thinks we might need a government to do a thing or two. After we heard Rubio's response we were treated to Tea Party Senator Rand Paul, who reminded us that: "Ronald Reagan said, government is not the answer to the problem, government is the problem. Tonight, the President told the nation he disagrees. President Obama believes government is the solution: More government, more taxes, more debt." While Obama did not propose any new taxes, facts are not central to this form of political rhetoric. I guess someone needs to tell Senator Paul that if you raise taxes, you tend to generate additional revenue, and when you have more money the debt goes down rather than up.

Obama's reelection may be a sign that the American people may actually want a government. As a student of public management, my deepest wish is that we stop arguing about the size of government, and get on with the really important work of improving government management. A key part of enhanced government management is a more effective and sophisticated relationship with the private sector. Another is the application of modern technology and management techniques to routine government functions.

To improve government management, we need to stop attacking the legitimacy of government. Government is capable of doing some pretty idiotic things. But it is also capable of doing some pretty wonderful things. Neither point is relevant here. Government is necessary. It performs key functions in our society and economy that cannot be performed by any other institution. It could, should and must do a better job of delivering services and enforcing rules. Fiscal cliffs, budget sequestration and the other ideological games underway in Washington have the effect of chasing away talented government managers. The constant crises are the enemy of effective public management. It seems as if the political right-wing is not satisfied with starving the governmental beast - they want to torture it as well. It's time to call a truce on the decades-long war on our own government. New York City's revival was built on exactly what President Obama is advocating for the rest of the country: Not a larger government, but a smarter one.