Mission Possible: creating a smarter and better US Government

The shuttle from Charlotte, North Carolina, to New York City will become awfully familiar to Tom Ross over the next few years. But while the presence of his wife, daughter and grandchildren in Charlotte ruled out a move to Manhattan, the newly appointed President of The Volcker Alliance isn’t about to start complaining about his commute. Fizzing with enthusiasm and ideas for his new role, he is eager to get going.

“I just joined after the July 4th holiday,” he explains, “and I am so excited about the opportunity and the challenges ahead. I think we have an organisation that has got a lot of potential and a very important responsibility to fulfil.” It certainly does. Only 19% of Americans say they trust the government “always or most of the time,” according to a 2015 study released by the Pew Research Center and only 20% would describe government programmes as being well-run. The only way is up, it would seem.

Gear up to step up

A quick glance through Ross’s résumé reveals a career spent almost entirely in public service, including 17 years as a trial judge, serving as president of two different institutions in higher education, one of which (North Carolina) was one of the largest public university systems in the country.

“The opportunity to now come to a place that is focused on trying to restore trust in government and make government more effective, as well as helping people understand the value of government, was very attractive,” he admits. “And also important was to be in a position where we could work with higher education institutions to help them better prepare people and encourage them into a career in public service. Government always needs the best and the brightest and we need to work hard to attract and retain them.”

No one would argue that but, equally, it is clear that despite the best efforts of those currently working in DC’s corridors of power and beyond, there is a clear problem about how the American public view their government and its institutions. Why is this the case?

“I think that government is like any institution in that it goes through different phases – some good, some bad,” replies Ross. “Sometimes people will have a visible example of why government is important but most of the services that government provides people take for granted. In the US there is increasing opposition to paying taxes and political campaigns in which candidates play to this concern by saying that they will cut taxes without having a healthy public discussion about why taxes are important. Similarly, there is little focus on the fact that government provides services that make people’s lives better and can change lives.”

Ross and his colleagues at The Volcker Alliance are striving to rectify this but there is only so much their sole organisation can do – particularly when partisan rancour tends to envelop the policymaking process as it has done in recent years. “We have a very divided government and a very divided population,” admits Ross. “This has caused people on both sides of the political spectrum to criticise those in power all of the time. When they criticise politicians this transfers to government and people don’t distinguish between the politics of government and the operations of government – and this is an important distinction I think.”

Ross is keen to stress that government is far from perfect but he believes that the tendency to believe the worst often overshadows the good. “We had a campaign forty years ago where one of the candidates talked of government being the problem and not the solution,” he recalls. “Unfortunately I think this resonated for a lot of people when in fact government very often is the solution.”

Applying the lessons – Volcker style

As befits someone who has spent much of his career in the education sector, Ross is keen to impart the experiences of his previous roles to his new position at the Alliance. “Part of my career was spent running a state’s court system and I learned a lot about public management,” he recalls. “I also learned a lot when I was running the university – which was really a $9 billion enterprise because we were also responsible for our state’s health care systems. So I think I have learned a lot of lessons about why government is important and I think I understand the ins and outs of politics because I’ve worked in that environment for a long time.”

His preceding positions all involved the need to collaborate and build partnerships with other organisations – which will also feature highly in his in-tray at the Alliance. Just three years old, the Alliance was set up by Paul A. Volcker, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, and its mission involves “partnering with other organisations – academic, business, governmental, and public interest – to strengthen professional education for public service, conduct needed research on government performance, and improve the efficiency and accountability of governmental organization at the federal, state, and local levels”.

“I’ve spent my life building partnerships and trying to get people to join this type of work,” says Ross. “And I hope that I bring some understanding of the ways in which we – as a non-profit organisation – add value to the discussion and debate, but also can be a catalyst for activity by other organisations. We don’t have the resources or the staff to do this work alone so we will have to work with partners. I hope I can bring some experience and background to the work here.”

The ups and downs of performance

Looking ahead, Ross says that it will be important to ensure that strengthening the performance of government remains front and centre in The Volcker Alliance’s operations. This, however, is not as straightforward as it is for organisations in the private sector. “In any enterprise, people need to be accountable and there need to be metrics by which you can judge their success and their performance,” he says. “But I think when you’re engaged in public service you’re not measured the same way because it is a different bottom line. It’s not just about always being the most efficient or the production of some product – it’s often services or dealing with people, and dealing with them in the best way possible may not always be the most efficient way.”

Another priority will be breaking down the functions of government to remind people of its importance in their daily lives. “There are plenty of areas where government can improve but also places where government performs well and we tend to take it for granted,” he says. “From drinking a glass of clean water to ensuring a smooth and well-functioning transportation system for your commute to and from work, government helps make our lives better. This means a little bit of appreciation for people who are often described as ‘government bureaucrats’ can be a good thing.”

Such work, he believes, will always have a powerful allure for anyone considering a career in government. “There is no question that money is important but there are things about public service – satisfaction and serving others – that are also really important,” he says.

“You want to be engaged and happy and challenged in whatever work environment you find yourself. I’m looking forward to helping persuade people that they can find this type of work environment in government. If we do so, the positive results we all seek will follow. I can’t wait to get started.”

 

FURTHER READING

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  • A doorway to delivery. Kevin Donahue has spent his career seeking to harness the power of data to improve government services. He tells Adrian Brown why good data is not an end in itself, but rather an opportunity to achieve better citizen outcomes