Obama’s Bureaucratic Generals

Inside the lives of the agency heads who actually run the federal government.

Deputy Secretary David Hayes walked into the Interior Department building on April 21, 2010, believing that the day would be noteworthy mostly for that evening’s celebration of his daughter’s eighteenth birthday. Instead, his Wednesday-morning routine was shattered by the news that the Deepwater Horizon oil rig had exploded, killing eleven workers and imperiling the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem. Hayes and a staffer dashed to the airport without so much as a toothbrush or a ticket, somehow persuading the airline crew to open the door of a Gulf-bound flight. It would be September before Hayes would have a day that was not dominated by the disaster. The damage from the Deepwater spill was grave enough as it was—but it would have been worse without Hayes’s obsessive efforts to cap the spill and accelerate the cleanup.

What Government Does:
How Political Executives Manage

by Paul R. Lawrence and
Mark A. Abramson
Rowman & Littlefield, 196 pp.

Hayes’s story is one of many tales of bureaucratic derring-do told in What Government Does: How Political Executives Manage, by management consultants Paul R. Lawrence and Mark A. Abramson. Alas, this important and admirably well-crafted volume is likely destined for meager sales (conceivably even lower than those of my books). Every American has a stake in what government does and how political executives manage; few Americans, however, have enough of an interest to read through a granular-level, interview-based book on the subject. But more of us should, and I would be delighted as well as surprised to see this fine book top the best-seller lists.

What Government Does starts with a concise overview of “the job of the political executive”—that distinctive set of imperatives faced by leaders who must wrangle with the operational challenges of getting things done, and the political challenges of determining what should be done and left undone when (as is almost always the case) capacity falls drastically short of requirements. Lawrence and Abramson postulate a set of generic tasks this work involves: assessing the organization; strengthening the organization; obtaining mission alignment; developing strong processes; mastering metrics and measuring progress; building relationships; enhancing credibility and visibility; and fostering innovation. Stated in the abstract, of course, this to-do list seems pretty obvious, but that doesn’t mean any element of it is unimportant or anything but fiendishly hard to pull off.

The cross-cutting components of the political executive’s work established, the authors turn to the book’s main and most novel contribution—developing and illustrating a taxonomy of the six types of federal government executives. Producers, they write, are responsible for organizations providing concrete deliverables—airport security, student loans, trademark protection, border security—to the public. Regulators lead organizations that monitor and seek to reduce the risks associated with consuming food or drugs, using consumer products, producing energy, working in mines, and so on. Infrastructors (my least favorite of the book’s neologisms) in agencies directly or indirectly attend to the construction or maintenance of the nation’s key physical assets. Scientists are responsible for developing, vetting, and disseminating information. Collaborators are a diverse group of executives whose organizations wield limited power on their own but punch above their weight, in terms of affecting outcomes, by their influence within networks of other public and private actors. And then there are Deputy Secretaries, a group that is, unlike the others, defined by title rather than function. But Lawrence and Abramson argue persuasively that a Deputy Secretary’s work is sufficiently different from that of other political executives, and sufficiently similar to that of other Deputy Secretaries, to warrant a category all its own.

Each category gets a chapter, and each chapter is dense with details about the work carried out by specific executives—as few as four and as many as eleven individual profiles giving depth and concreteness to each type. These case histories are based on an exhaustive series of interviews with forty-two senior Obama administration executives who cooperated in this project. It is a prodigiously impressive list. Many of the forty-two I already knew by reputation, six I am acquainted with personally, and one is a reasonably close friend. That said, the list reflects nothing like the systematic selection process that can yield the kind of generalizable evidence you can take to the bank. One gets the sense that these people are the subset of those, from a longer list initially contacted, who said yes to a request for researchers to watch as they did their work while promising not to get underfoot. No matter. Lawrence and Abramson aren’t after social-science generalizations but something that is far more powerful for their purposes: fine-grained accounts of what it’s like to actually take on these tasks for the American public.

After a stratospheric rise through the engineering ranks in his native India, Arum Majumdar earned a prestigious engineering professorship at the University of California, Berkeley. Nobody would have begrudged him the chance to revel in his accomplishments, settling in to churn out a career’s worth of research papers and train a generation of graduate students. But when Energy Secretary Steven Chu asked him to launch the Advanced Research Projects Agency—Energy (ARPA-E), which Congress had just funded, Majumdar did not hesitate. The time was right—way past right, in fact—to get serious about hustling carbon-sparing technologies out of the labs and into the economy. The day he took the job he boarded a red-eye from California to D.C. and set to work soliciting and assessing proposals. Since then, ARPA-E has funded around 360 research projects, each aimed at producing a game-changing energy innovation: a silicon-carbine transistor that can channel a full megawatt through a fingernail-sized device; a device that uses compressed air to store energy when there’s a time gap between supply and demand; genetically engineered microorganisms that eat climate-fouling carbon dioxide and turn it into liquid fuel. Not all of these ideas will turn out to be workable, or scalable, or even sound. But that’s okay. To raise realistic hopes of bending the curve of climate change we only need a few of them, and ARPA-E is on the job.

David J. Kappos was confirmed as undersecretary of commerce one April Friday, and the following Monday left his comfortable job as an IBM vice president for the far less lucrative, far more demanding task of running the Patent and Trademark Office. This was an organization with a mission hardwired into the Constitution—and it was not going well. As the number of inventions churned out in American labs, workshops, and garages soared, and as austerity shrank Patent Office head counts, the backlog of patent applications awaiting action soared past 700,000. Inventors weren’t interested in hearing why it was hard—they wanted their rightful claims on intellectual property recognized before they grew old. And Kappos set to work to make it happen. As he led his team in doing the hundred things that needed to be done—none of them esoteric, some of them obvious, all of them requiring persistence and grit—the backlog stopped its rise and headed downward.

Beneath the inevitable alphabet soup and occasional bureaucratese, these tales make for instructive, often sobering, and frequently inspiring reading. Deputy Secretary Seth Harris of the Department of Labor provides what could be an epigram for the overall book: “You have to get into the systems of government. You can change government, but it takes time.” Change that is all too urgent; time that is all too scarce.

No review would be complete without the “to be sure” paragraph, so here goes: To be sure, there is a great deal of poetic license in the title. What Government Does is essentially a set of cameo profiles of senior political appointees at the Washington headquarters of major federal organizations. But such individuals make up less than 1 percent of the public workforce. The vast majority of federal employees work outside Washington, and even the full roster of federal civil servants comes to fewer than three million people. This is not to say that federal work—regulating, exploring space, tending to defense, spying and catching spies, and all the rest—is unimportant. It is just that these activities represent a relatively small piece of what government does.

That terminological quibble dispensed with, I can end with the heartfelt hope that What Government Does has a healthy initial readership and (maybe more important) a long life on Rowman & Littlefield’s backlist. With every new administration over the years to come there will be a fresh crop of political executives in dire need—whether they know it or not—of the lessons, cautionary tales, and pep talks from their predecessors assembled here. The rest of us can treasure it now as a reminder of how exquisitely important these jobs are; how lucky we are to have such talented, patriotic people taking up these brutally hard and often thankless tasks; and what a pickle we will be in if public leaders of this caliber ever stop raising their hands to do the difficult work on which our welfare depends.

John D. Donahue

John D. Donahue is the Raymond Vernon Senior Lecturer in Public Policy and faculty chair of the Master's in Public Policy program at Harvard's Kennedy School.