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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Augean Stables

Bringing “change” to Washington isn’t just a matter of introducing new domestic or international policies, or even successfully meeting today’s crises. It also means cleaning out the Augean Stables of federal deparments and agencies that have won reputations for incompetence, particularly during the Bush Era of indifferent management, cronyism, and ideological manipulation.
That’s why I hope the incoming Obama administration takes the time to review the congressionally-mandated Human Capital Survey of the federal bureaucracy, and the associated rankings of federal agencies conducted by the private nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.
Some of the more disturbing findings of these two studies have been summarized for The Washington Monthly by Partnership president and CEO Max Stier and Kennedy School professor John D. Donohue, in an article provocatively entitled “The Next FEMA.” Among the agencies ranking notably low in morale, professionalism, and leadership are the Office of Thrift Supervision (which has a large role in supervising mortgage lenders), the Defense Contract Management Agency (home to vast cost overruns), the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and the Defense Nuclear Detection Office (paging Sam Nunn!). And oh, yeah, the Department of Homeland Security, where FEMA’s now located, ranks second to the bottom among large agencies.
Stier and Donohue offer a variety of sensible reforms that can help bring change to troubled federal agencies, including a heavy emphasis on management expertise in leadership positions, and a focus on measurable results. But the most important factor may well be the ability of the new administration to take the unsexy but essential challenge of government reform seriously even as it juggles crises and pursues big policy priorities. As we all learned in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, bad agencies have a way of creating their own crises and making themselves an unwanted priority.

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