Pinkerton's Panacea

The second part of James Pinkerton's two-part series on the "crisis of process" in the Federal Goverment is up at Tech Central Station. (The first part is here, which I blogged about here.)

The new article provides more thought-provoking points, but I'm less convinced of Pinkerton's diagnosis as time goes on, and so I'm even more skeptical of the "fix" he proposes.

The fix, is, essentially, to reshape and reorganize the Executive Branch:

Take the functions of the federal executive branch and turn them all into five "super departments." That is, take the existing unwieldy 15 Cabinet departments -- and umpty-ump independent agencies -- and collapse them into a user-friendly quintet:
  • National Security — including Defense, State, the CIA
  • Economy & Trade — ncluding Treasury, Commerce, Special Trade Representative
  • Justice, Border & Homeland Security
  • Energy, Environment, Science & Technology
  • Human Resources & Transportation

The five heads of these "super departments" would be "Super Secretaries" working closely with the President.

I'm far from an expert on organization issues; it could very well be that this might "work better" (in some sense). But Pinkerton's arguments aren't very convincing.

Take the one of the prime examples he thinks demonstrate the need for a "fix": FEMA's Katrina response. In the first article he claimed that the problems were due to FEMA being "tangled up in turf issues inside the Department of Homeland Security." But in the second article:

But, some will object, what about the Katrina/FEMA problem? That is, Washington wisdom these days is that the once-independent Federal Emergency Management Agency lost clout when it was folded into the Department of Homeland Security. Ex-FEMA chief Michael Brown says he was unable to muster sufficient resources to react to Katrina, because he didn't have the pull, buried as he was inside the DHS domain. There's some merit to that argument, but there's even more merit to the argument that "Brownie" wasn't very good. And as noted, Chertoff doesn't add much value, either.

Erm, so which is it? Incompetent people, or a "process failure"? Will solving one problem solve the other? Why? There's a lot of handwaving in Pinkerton's article, but no clear and convincing demonstration that a reorganized Executive Branch would have gotten relief to New Orleans any faster than the current one did.

I tend to think we don't have a "crisis of process" so much as two other things:

  1. A crisis of vision: Pinkerton doesn't consider that it simply might be that no central goverment can handle certain things competently. His historical examples of government "working" are, tellingly, all about war: his heroes are Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Truman.

    I'm willing to grant that centralized governments do a great job of killing their enemies, foreign and domestic. But it's at least plausible (and, I think, real likely) that other sorts of governmental tasks are better off decentralized. Pinkerton's plan doesn't really deal with this.

  2. A crisis of PR; the standards by which government is said to "work" are notoriously flexible. Generally, opinion makers and the media will think the people they like are doing a heckuva job. Since a lot of those folks currently despise Bush, they're more than happy to play up bad news and assign blame. And we conclude that "government doesn't work".

But go read the article, Pinkerton's at least provocative.