Nation & World

Government holds seeds to its own reform

6 min read

In recent book, Kennedy School’s Kamarck examines new governing forms

The seeds of a new, more efficient government able to nimbly handle the challenges of a new century are sprouting in the corridors of today’s slow-moving bureaucracy, according to Elaine Kamarck, a lecturer in public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government.

In her latest book, “The End of Government … As We Know It: Making Public Policy Work,” Kamarck examines three new ways of doing the government’s business that have evolved over the past decade or so that, though limited in their applications today, offer promise to provide a more efficient government of the future.

“There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution,” Kamarck said.

Kamarck has ample experience in government reform and efficiency. She headed the Clinton administration’s National Performance Review, the administration-wide assessment and reform process that aimed to streamline government processes and make them more focused on satisfying the government’s main customer: the American public.

In the book, published earlier this year, Kamarck examines new forms of government that have emerged from traditional bureaucracy in response to challenges that rule-oriented government has been unable to meet.

Kamarck examines what she terms “reinvented government,” “government by network,” and “government by market,” with each successive form becoming less and less like what we expect of a government program.

Reinvented government has its roots in the reforms Kamarck worked on in the Clinton administration, in which government turns to technology to streamline processes and shifts its focus to the public’s view of how well it provides a particular service.

Government by network occurs when government pays private sector organizations to provide particular services. The network of private, nonprofit job training agencies that help people on welfare transition to work is one example.

Government by market is the most decentralized of the three forms covered by Kamarck. In government by market, the government creates incentives — and sometimes the market itself — to prompt independent actors, such as businesses or individuals, to act in ways the government deems important.

One example Kamarck uses is the creation of a market for sulfur dioxide emission permits. The market was created by the government in an effort to induce a wide array of businesses to reduce their sulfur dioxide pollution. Each business was granted the right to emit a certain amount of sulfur dioxide — the pollutant responsible for acid rain — into the atmosphere. Those that cleaned up their emissions faster were able to then sell their unused permits to other, slower-moving businesses. This provided an incentive for businesses to clean up their acts, but also provided a way for government to ensure the overall amount of sulfur dioxide didn’t rise and gave slower-moving businesses a chance to buy time to purchase and install expensive cleanup equipment.

Another example of government by market is the creation of deposit fees on bottles. The bottle deposit laws were devised in response to widespread littering of cans and bottles and have prevented people from littering in the first place and created an incentive for others to collect the bottles and cans that are tossed aside.

Kamarck said one of the biggest surprises she came across while researching the book was that government by market is not used more. With its efficiency and effectiveness, she said there’s enormous potential for well-designed markets to have an impact.

She predicted that Americans are going to see a vigorous debate over government by market in the near future. One of the likeliest ways of controlling emissions of the global warming gas, carbon dioxide, is through emissions permit trading similar to the market that was established for sulfur dioxide. She predicted the next administration, Republican or Democrat, will tackle the issue of global warming and that a market for carbon dioxide emissions will be a prominent alternative.

Throughout the book, Kamarck relies on two well-publicized examples of government reform in the last two decades: welfare reform and the post-9/11 security reorganization that led to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security.

The welfare reform move of the 1990s came on the heels of decades of attempted reforms that tried to create a welfare system that wouldn’t perpetuate itself and that would provide an incentive for people on welfare to move into job training and then jobs.

Kamarck said the Clinton administration finally hit on a mix of successful reforms when it combined a reinvented government that uses streamlined processes and technology to determine welfare eligibility and benefits with a network of private providers to provide job training services. It uses government by market as well, in that it provides vouchers for the day-care services so badly needed by parents with children who want to work.

The Homeland Security example has hits and misses, according to Kamarck. The government appropriately brought a critical security function — airport security — out of the private sector and into the government. Homeland Security also centralized control of the nation’s borders. The reorganization falters, however, because Homeland Security has been assigned a coordinating function over the FBI and CIA that is supposed to work well without either command or budgetary control. The tangled command lines and resulting confusion were apparent in the government response to Hurricane Katrina.

Kamarck said she wrote the book because there had been little analysis about when and where the emerging forms of government perform best.

“The evolution happened without really being named and without much thought of what works and why,” Kamarck said. “Where are we good and where are we not so good?”

Although the 21st century provides new challenges for government, there remain cases where government bureaucracy — albeit a “reinvented” one — performs best, such as those where security is important and where functions can be performed through routine processes.

Government by network is best when the creativity and innovation of smaller organizations are needed. Government by market is best in cases where broad-based, individualized behavior change is required.

Kamarck also points out that the skills needed to manage a network of providers adeptly and to monitor a market for abuses are different than those found in a traditional bureaucracy. It’s important to recognize the need for different skills to oversee other forms of government because oversight is critical to ensure the government’s goals are being met.

Despite their promise, Kamarck said bad government by network and bad government by market can still occur. Her book, she said, is an effort to help people understand when government by network or market may be best, so that a bad vendor or poorly designed market don’t cause a reversion to bureaucracy when getting rid of a bad vendor or redesigning a market is what’s really called for.

“It really depends on the kind of policy problems you’re trying to solve,” Kamarck said.