Verkuil offers a compelling argument for reshaping the bureaucracy, but the odds of adoption are slim.
Paul R. Verkuil’s Valuing Bureaucracy: The Case for Professional Government is a tour de force of historical interpretation and empirical analysis. It is also a civics sermon predicated on and punctuated by the author’s unshakeable faith in American democracy. I write to trumpet Verkuil’s history lessons, endorse his analyses—and question his faith.
First, however, full disclosure: Valuing Bureaucracy contains frequent and favorable citations to public administration studies by Donald F. Kettl, Paul Light, and yours truly (two home runs and a foul ball, respectively), including one to an op-ed in The Washington Post that I co-authored with Verkuil in 2016.
So, consider the source, but Verkuil’s historical renderings are vivid and visionary. Two chapters of the book, entitled “The Growth of Contracting Out in Government” and “The Consequences of Federal Contractor Government,” summarize just about every significant fact, development, and dispute of relevance to federal contracting. The former chapter expertly places the current government outsourcing frenzy in the context of the “growth in contractors in the economy as a whole over the last decade,” a trend that Verkuil suggests reflects a wider “transformation in the employer-employee relationship.”
But, as Verkuil emphasizes, in the public sector “contractors now represent not only numbers, but brains—brains that have been outsourced.”
To cite just my favorite from among Verkuil’s many compelling examples, just one unit—Booz Allen Hamilton—of one mega-corporation—the Carlyle Group—earns $5.48 billion a year from government agencies and employs nearly 23,000 people, “many of whom have prior government service, and one-half of whom have security clearances.”
In agency after agency, Verkuil shows, there are “glaring inadequacies in oversight of the contractor regime” that “can only be overcome by infusing more talent in government itself.” Then these words, which might be the best single-sentence summary of the book’s bedrock thesis: “Rational government is not contractor government, it is professional government managing contractor services.”
Verkuil supports his thesis with a variety of case studies. What do a coal ash spill in North Carolina, IBM litigation in Indiana, the administration of climate change regulations in New Jersey, and the privatization of government tasks in Texas all have in common? One part of the answer is monumental performance failure wrought by the use of paid non-public proxies to administer the people’s business, including with respect to tasks that even a radical libertarian might agree are inherently governmental. Another part of the answer lies in what happened after “each of these states shrank its public workforce in a risky gamble for government efficiency.”
One subsection of Valuing Bureaucracy—entitled “Workarounds and Professionalism,” which includes Verkuil’s first-person testimonies about the conditions under which workarounds work (or do not work)—deserves to be nominated as the single most nuanced and novel part of the book.
In computer science parlance, “workaround” refers to a technique for compensating for or curing a program feature or “bug” that causes a system to falter or fail. In bureaucratic parlance, “workaround” generally refers to ways and means of cutting red tape or overcoming other effectiveness-sapping, performance-killing organizational routines and structures.
To achieve anything resembling administrative excellence, many, perhaps most, government organizations need workaround-ready leaders and managers who can circumnavigate “encrusted statutory and regulatory commands” and cope creatively with “what happens when rules are stacked upon one another across administrations over many years.”
As Verkuil avers, “nowhere is professional expertise more needed than in cutting through the spider’s web of rules and formalities that delay and trap citizens.” But nowhere, as he illustrates, are contractors less suitable substitutes for seasoned public servants than in identifying, crafting, and executing workarounds that result in government either working better, or costing less, or both.
As Verkuil demonstrates via facts, figures, and four superb case studies, that thesis applies not just to the federal contractor regime, but to the contractor regimes that now dominate most states.
In his discussion of civil service reform, Verkuil refers to Achieving Regulatory Excellence, the outstanding 2017 volume edited by Cary Coglianese, but he could have cited it no less aptly in discussing the need for professional public servants, not paid contractors, when it comes to making workaround work. As Coglianese noted in that volume’s opening chapter, professional regulators practice “discretion with accountability” and must learn “what aspects of a problem to focus on or what rule violations to target or overlook.”
But it is Verkuil’s faith in American democracy that motivates the book, and it is by no means a naïve faith.
Verkuil has worked as a top college’s president and as dean of two great law schools. He served a half-decade under President Barack Obama as Chairman of the Administrative Conference of the United States. He is a model pragmatic idealist, and his book Outsourcing Sovereignty remains a landmark treatise in spotlighting the many dangers associated with relying so heavily on contractors to translate public laws and policies into administrative action.
In short, Verkuil is a noble civic soul whose final page is a hymn to hope: “I am always hopeful that arguments well-made can persuade, so long as people remain faithful to the cause of democratic governance.”
I wish I were half as hopeful. As described in my little 2014 book, Bring Back the Bureaucrats, sadly, what I see is a constitutionally limited government that has morphed into a “Leviathan by Proxy”—a debt-financed, proxy-administered state in which most voters love their member of Congress but hate Congress; demand more government benefits without more taxes; unite in bipartisan disregard for “our Posterity;” divide into polarized partisan and ideological factions; and doubt or deny that public service professionals serve “the cause of democratic governance.”
But maybe Verkuil is right to hope. Maybe Valuing Bureaucracy itself will win some hearts and minds. Even in the Trump Administration, Verkuil concludes, “doubters must come to recognize the bureaucracy is their government and disparaging it will neither make it go away nor perform better.”
Maybe in the wake of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s relatively fine performance in responding to hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the story of how that particular agency was reformed and rebuilt post-Hurricane Katrina will be revisited, and the lessons duly generalized.
And maybe rhetoric about “draining the swamp,” orders for freezing government payrolls, and the similar symbolic gestures will give way to a more fact-based focus on the need for real civil service reform.
…Or maybe not.
This essay is part of a nine-part series, entitled Valuing Professional Government.