Strategist pens a tale of centrist philosophy

Federal Workers

April 13, 2007|By Melissa Harris

Longtime Democratic strategist Elaine Kamarck started her government career as a Woodlawn middle-schooler, listening to her father read his Medicare training manuals to her.

"If I could figure them out, he knew he was writing clearly enough," she said of her father, a career civil servant at the Social Security Administration.

Almost 30 years later, Kamarck arrived at the White House to help Vice President Al Gore "reinvent government," injecting corporate management practices to the tune of 350,000 fewer federal jobs.

However, in her new book, The End of Government ... as we know it: Making Public Policy Work, Kamarck does not wholly recommend starting from where she left off.

The book outlines Kamarck's centrist government management philosophy, which relies on talented government executives matching congressional goals with the right method for solving them.

"People on the left think that anything the private sector does is going to rip off government, and the people on the right believe that anything the private sector does is going to be better," she said. "I take a more neutral view. There are certain kinds of policy problems, particularly ones that require innovation, where it's in the government's interest to contract out." In the book, Kamarck, 56, a lecturer at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, recommends that Congress craft budgets every two years, instead of every year, to free up time to do something other than "fire-alarm" oversight.

She also recommends that it reorganize its committees so that each federal agency reports to only one committee in each chamber.

And although she does not promote million-dollar bonuses and other corporate excesses, she said that top civil servant positions should be better-paid to attract more creative thinkers who can pare down the bureaucracy wisely, rather than carte-blanche.

"One of my biggest worries is that we've gone to contracting out as the default mode of government," Kamarck said. "And we're not paying attention to what's happening with the contractors. ... We're not getting our money's worth on a regular basis, and I fault Congress for that."

Once described by the Washington Post as Gore's "comrade-in-wonkiness," Kamarck uses the government's role in garbage collection, of all places, to show the success of market-driven innovation in the delivery of public services.

"Picking up garbage is a pretty basic government function that everybody agrees has to be done," she said.

Originally, bureaucracies -- departments of sanitation -- performed garbage collection. Then the field moved toward what Kamarck describes as "government by network" -- private companies competed for garbage collection contracts and drove down costs.

"The next generation of government has to address the fact that we just create too much darn garbage," she said.

To address that problem, some cities, such as San Francisco and Portland, Ore., have turned to "government by market," charging residents for the service based on the amount of garbage they generate.

"If you're a really good recycler, you're going to need a smaller tub and therefore, you get to pay less money," she said. "You're creating a market in garbage."

Kamarck said solutions that require assembly line-esque routines or high levels of security need to stay within the government, including issuing passports and driver's licenses, securing airports and determining eligibility for Medicaid and Social Security.

But that does not mean the passport office closes at 5 p.m. or requires customers to get services in person rather than over the Internet or on the phone.

"Typical of the letters that came into ... the White House during the Clinton administration ... was from an obviously well-to-do man ... attempting to get his newborn daughter a passport," Kamarck wrote. "After he had stood in line for a very long time, the office simply closed -- with no apologies to the people who had been waiting. They were simply told to come back the next day. This is an example of how, by the end of the 20th century, the distance between the private and public sectors was large and growing."

When the public policy question requires flexibility and innovation, such as that regarding medical research, Kamarck recommends government by network, a hodge-podge effort from civil servants and contractors, as in the case of the garbage collection above.

When the public policy problem requires that millions of people change their behaviors, the country needs "government by market," she says, which is the most powerful solution of the three but also the most difficult to achieve.

A success story is the earned income tax credit, Kamarck writes.

Passed in 1975, as enchantment with welfare grew, the credit lowered the tax bill of working poor people with children and forced the `undeserving poor' to get a job or resort to stigmatized and inadequate services though Aid to Families with Dependent Children or AFDC, Kamarck said.

Since then, presidents have expanded the program, increasing the maximum tax credit and opening the program to working poor people without children.

A "powerhouse" of anti-poverty efforts, Kamarck writes, the tax credit increased "labor-force participation among single workers (something the bureaucratic welfare system repeatedly failed to do)" and is an example of Congress moving away from bureaucracy and creating of a market.

Kamarck dedicated the book to her father, Andrew J. Ciulla, "a great public servant," who died last year. When asked what her father thought of her work during the Clinton administration, she said he was "fascinated by it."

The writer welcomes your comments and feedback. She can be reached at melissa.harris@ baltsun.com or 410-715-2885.

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