To say that Elliott Abrams knows his way around Washington is something of an understatement. Having worked for Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush, the Oval Office is by no means unfamiliar territory and nor are the other focal points of power and influence scattered across Washington’s eclectic range of neighbourhoods.
This exposure to the highest echelons of the federal government – its power and constraints – has left him with a sense, however, that the system is not fully geared towards achieving the impact that citizens expect and deserve. “I think that most citizens realise that government does very many significant things that help them – starting with national defence,” he says “But there is also a great deal of frustration. Most citizens deal with this gigantic entity called the ‘federal government’ and have had plenty of experience of government failures to deliver what it promised or to deliver its services efficiently.”
Eyes over the border
Abrams’ is a career steeped in the myriad complexities of US foreign policy – a fact reflected in his current position as a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. Both of his roles, in the White House and the Department of State, were foreign policy based. His most recent saw him serve as deputy assistant to President Bush and deputy national security advisor – where he oversaw the administration’s Middle East policy. These responsibilities came after his first stint advising a Republican occupant of the Oval Office – assistant secretary of state for Latin America under President Reagan.
Both jobs entailed frequent international travel. Such trips were opportunities not only to meet and connect with foreign leaders, but also to observe examples of how other countries were addressing challenges similar to those facing policymakers back home. Asked to give some examples of public impact encountered on his travels, Abrams admits that countries that were hardly shining beacons of democracy were often the most impressive.
“Look at Singapore and the United Arab Emirates, which are not considered fully democratic governments but their citizens have very high regard for their effectiveness,” he points out. “There was also a non-democratic government under General Pinochet in Chile which oversaw a remarkable economic transformation of the country. They put into effect what I would describe as a ‘better old age pension system’ than the US had then or has now. This is a country of course that was, particularly back then, not nearly as economically developed as we were. But they were looking at the economy and simply asking ‘what would work best?’ as opposed to being constrained by what they had traditionally done.”
Democracy – or the lack of it – is something that also shapes Abrams’ perspective on the operations of the federal government at home. “We have this vast bureaucracy consisting of people who have never been elected by anyone,” he points out. “There are elected officials but there aren’t very many of them. There are literally millions of people in the federal bureaucracy, and who controls them? How does the citizen through his or her vote actually have an impact on this vast creature?”
And of course, this situation has hardly been helped by the relentless partisan gridlock that has gripped Washington, DC in recent years. Policies all too often get mired in legislative stalemate on Capitol Hill, and sometimes the details do not even reach the White House. The end result is that government frequently fails to achieve its policy goals, leaving citizens out of pocket as a result.
“Most Americans are not spending a huge amount of their time thinking about politics,” Abrams points out. “They may a few days before an election but, for most, life goes on. So, what do they read about the government in the newspaper? They read about legislation not getting passed and different senators and members of Congress arguing over this or that. As a result, they easily reach the conclusion that there is too much partisanship in Washington and not enough actually getting done.”
Quite often it comes down to individual policymakers to make a deliberate move to build bridges and overcome a policy impasse. For example, in 2013, Senator Patti Murray – a Democrat – and Congressman Paul Ryan – a Republican – won many plaudits for successfully brokering a two-year budget deal, overcoming many challenging issues within their respective party ranks. Abrams agrees that characters are key.
“We have a tendency to believe that things are so bureaucratic now that it hardly matters which individuals are at the top and I think that’s wrong,” he says. “There is a famous story about President Truman giving way to Dwight Eisenhower as president. Truman said at one point, ‘Poor Ike, he is going to come in and give orders and think it is just like the army and he will find out that it isn’t’.
“Actually, Eisenhower proved Truman wrong as it turned out he was a very skilled bureaucrat and I think that Truman didn’t realise that the army, too, is a vast bureaucracy. I think that some individuals are just better at it than others. Sometimes it’s down to personality and sometimes it is down to experience. More effective government depends in part on the personality of the person at the top. The notion that it doesn’t matter who wins an election is completely wrong.”
But while personalities count, so, too, does the overall approach – or mindset – of a government. Caution and conservatism – with a small ‘c’ – often take over. “There is a risk aversion issue”, agrees Abrams, “and there is also the fact that in any modern government, there are going to be a lot of built-in obstacles. Some of these are interest groups that are completely legitimate but they build up one after another and it becomes increasingly difficult to take action. I think you can say – and there are even some sociologists who have written about this – that when a new bureaucracy grows up, it is very likely that another one will materialise in order to combat it and to protect opposing interests.”
To illustrate his point, Abrams cites the creation of the Office of Management and Budget, which was set up in the executive branch to follow and control the federal budget and the subsequent creation of the Congressional Budget Office, to do the same thing.
“Another example is the National Security Council, which was established because the military and diplomatic bureaucracies and the CIA had gotten so big that the president could no longer control them and would need help ensuring that his decisions were followed”, he continues. “And you see this in many other governments. For example, in Europe it is now common to see the post of national security advisor, which I think is an effort on the part of presidents and prime ministers to get control of the vast military and national security bureaucracy that lots of countries have.”
That doesn’t mean the federal government is too big, he stresses, going on to cite the potential of new technology to deliver big advantages to operations and programmes. But nonetheless he is convinced that there remains a significant problem. “There is no question that there is a lot of frustration – and it’s not a left-right issue as it is something felt at both ends of the spectrum,” he says. “We’re approaching a tipping point – it’s just a case of how long it takes to get there.”
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