Mr. Fixit

In his new book, political scientist Donald Kettl argues that 20th-century government is no match for 21st-century problems.
February 1, 2009

If the title of Donald Kettl’s new book, The Next Government of the United States: Why Our Institutions Fail Us and How to Fix Them, smacks of overreaching, consider the author’s background.

The Robert A. Fox Leadership Professor of Political Science and former director of the Fels Institute of Government, Kettl is a nationally recognized expert on government policy and public administration. He has written or edited a dozen books, including On Risk and Disaster: Lessons from Hurricane Katrina; The Global Public Management Revolution; System Under Stress: Homeland Security and American Politics;and The Transformation of Governance: Public Administration for the 21st Century.

Kettl has consulted broadly for government organizations at all levels in the U.S. and abroad. He has given expert testimony before congress and has advised the White House during both Republican and Democratic administrations. He is a regular columnist for Governing magazine, which is read by state and local government officials around the country, and he has appeared on national television and contributes to the op-ed pages of major newspapers.

In The Next Government of the United States, Kettl’s main argument is that our 20th-century government is no match for the big, complex, 21st-century problems that threaten to devour us. The sprawling challenges we face—collapsing economy, imploding health care, global warming and many others—outstrip government’s ability to respond effectively, he says.

Kettl had watched with dismay the federal government’s mishandling of Hurricane Katrina. On a more personal level, he also navigated the Medicaid-Medicare system of healthcare professionals and institutions to take care of Mildred, his 91-year-old mother-in-law, without ever encountering a government representative. That was a successful experience. Both cases taught him something about modern governance—that much of it has morphed into an interlocking system of public-private groups and agencies that lack a central control and a clear vision of government’s role. He concluded that “American government was facing some tough, inescapable problems, and it was becoming painfully clear that the government we had was not a good match for the problems we were trying to solve.” Based on his observations of government responses to current events and on hundreds of conversations with government officials, Kettl proposes a solution in The Next Government of the United States.

In this new world of urgent and complex problems, Kettl states, new kinds of leadership and new kinds of administrative structures will be needed. The plodding “vending-machine model”—characterized by a centralized bureaucracy, elaborate protocols and rigid hierarchies—is soon swamped by fast-moving crises and even by the very nature of networked government itself. The next government’s new structures, he advises, should be stable and routine for handling recurring problems but flexible enough to respond to unforeseeable crises. Some challenges are so large and complex that they can only be addressed by the “leveraged governance” of public-private entities and overseen by leaders who are committed, flexible, creative and skilled at developing relationships among people and institutions. Kettl calls these new kinds of leaders, who must steer multi-organizational partnerships between networked government and its legion of contractors and subcontractors, “rocket scientists.”

“We often think of rocket science as being too complex for ordinary mortals to understand,” he observes. “But if you look at how rocket scientists launch rockets, what they do is they figure out what it is they’re trying to accomplish, they pull together the people who are needed to try to do the job, they focus them on the objective, they give them what they need, and they hold them accountable for the results. And that, as it turns out, is the key to effective government.”

If we do not build this “next government,” Kettl warns, we will be doomed to relive the failures of the 1950s, when rocket scientists had not yet mastered the building of good rockets. There are many instances of exploding rockets in recent history, from Katrina to the Exxon Valdez spill. But we also have the example of Mildred’s caregivers, who were not of the government, but whose services were funded through government assistance. “They were the rocket scientists who honed their craft by striving hard to make things work well,” Kettl writes. “Their effort shines as a beacon for the next government of the United States.”