Public Goods Post
thinking about the public economy
Is Democracy Doomed?
August 2017  Vol. 2, No. 8
We’re hearing it from all sides: the United States -- the oldest constitutional democracy -- may not survive. Our democratic system is at the breaking point, pundits say. People are worried, yes, about the chaos and incompetence in the White House, but there’s much more: voter participation in elections is abysmally low; Congress has been deadlocked for years; reputable media are vilified; mega corporations willfully abuse the citizenry and enrich only the already-wealthy. The public has lost faith in government, we are told, and even in democracy itself.
A recent article by Umair Haque makes the case that we are at “the end of the American experiment.”
However familiar may be the depth of his pessimism, Haque seems to be unique in pointing to Americans’ failure to appreciate public goods as the critical reason why we may be about to lose our democracy.  Haque insists that public goods, such as those making for a healthy, secure, and educated citizenry, enable a healthy, secure democracy. 
Yet even Haque does not address one crucial link between democracy and public goods. In order to assure the production of public goods, we must have a competent, robust and sufficiently resourced professional public workforce. Like Haque, the majority of Americans have likely never considered the intrinsically vital role of government workers. When this public capacity is demolished (as described in the article by Gilad Edelson, highlighted in last month’s Post), democracy itself cannot function.
What is to be done?
In a bold and important new book, Paul Verkuil bucks the trend of the last decades in which government has been disparaged and delegitimized. He argues instead that we must value and rebuild the professional capacity of our government. We don’t need more “contractors managing contractors,” as Verkuil writes; rather, we need to restore the public workforce and rebuild its systemic professional capabilities.
If Haque’s premise is correct, that in order to preserve our democracy Americans must come to appreciate the centrality of public goods, it follows then that Americans must also understand, and vote to support the professional workforce that produces them.
Valuing Bureaucracy; The Case for Professional Government
Essay by Paul Verkuil

President emeritus of the College of William & Mary,
former chairman of the Administrative Conference of the United States and author of the new book, Valuing Bureaucracy.

My book, Valuing Bureaucracy, makes the case for professional government at all levels. At one time this would have been a self-evident or obvious proposition, but not today. It is no exaggeration to say that our great system of objective, non-political and competent government, once the envy of the world, is now in dire straits. The career and appointed political officials who take an oath to uphold the Constitution and do the public’s business have been compromised, cut back, or terminated, and the negative consequences are measurable. While the book has a theoretical dimension, at heart it is a study of federal, state and local regulatory failures that I came to understand during my 5-plus years of service as chairman of the Administrative Conference of the United States, a federal agency charged with improving the performance of agencies.
The key insights are that doing government well is hard, as difficult as any job in the private sector, and that the skills required are learned over time, which is why a stable career-oriented workforce is indispensable. The excessive use of contractors is not the answer. In my experience, the problem with the use of contractors is that their powers reach too high in the decision-making hierarchy, where institutional and even constitutional constraints demand career public officials. The turn to contractors is partly a political reaction to civil servants but also to a demonstrably false notion that the real experts are outside government.
I looked at numerous state examples of government failure, where the failures of contractors, who promised much at a high cost and often delivered little, were usually a contributing cause. At the federal level, it is no coincidence the GAO has never taken a contractor-dominated federal agency off its "high risk" list.
Politically appointed leaders, who have limited time to get their missions accomplished, want results and feel that contractors are easier to use. Thus, we now have a "blended" workforce of civil servants and contractors. To rebalance, we desperately need civil service reform. My belief is that fixing the civil service system will result in a surge of new talent to government, young people who want to be "social entrepreneurs” and to make a difference for America as a whole. 
The Trump Administration favors public-private partnerships and other types of privatization.  So the contractor vs civil service issue has become even more important. We can't have contractors managing contractors. We need smart and dedicated civil servants to oversee the public investment process or we will be faced with more government failure in the future, and more disregard of government and its workers. There is no substitute for responsible public management. 
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The Public Goods Post has been created by June Sekera, 
Founder and Director of the Public Goods Institute; and Research Fellow at the 
Global Development And Environment Institute, Tufts University.

The Public Goods Post is produced by Daniel Agostino.

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