Escaping Jurassic Government: How to Recover America’s Lost Commitment to Competence

Don Kettl

Brookings Institution Press

Government is dangerously out of sync with its environment and if it doesn’t adapt soon it might find itself wiped out and going extinct –just like the dinosaurs. This, in a nutshell, is Kettl’s argument and he doesn’t just diagnose the problem but also, thankfully, offers some possible ways out of this predicament.

The analogy of government being like a dinosaur applies on two levels. It’s not just that government is at risk of going extinct if it doesn’t adapt to changing circumstances. It’s also that government is like a  tyrannosaurus rex struggling to effectively use its clumsy, short arms. Government’s goals have become more and more ambitious, yet its dexterity hasn’t kept up. And like a dying dinosaur government might hurt a couple of other beings around it before it goes the way of the dodo…

Kettl’s other basic contention is that we used to fight over what government ought to do, yet had a consensus over how it should do it. The consensus was that whatever government did, it needed to do it competently. In Kettl’s words, “there was a bipartisan commitment to making government work” (his emphasis). Today that dynamic has reversed. Kettl argues, convincingly, that despite all appearances we have a near-unanimous consensus on what government should do, yet the commitment to do it competently has been lost.

Despite claims to the contrary, federal spending as share of GDP has been relatively steady since the 1970s. What has changed is what goes on inside the budget. The share of mandatory spending (i.e. entitlements) has gone up, while the share of discretionary spending has gone down. This makes reducing the overall size of government (as measured by spending) difficult, if not impossible. We can tinker on the edges but, by and large, the level of government spending is here to stay.

This is why, Kettl argues, the debate over what government does is, for all intents and purposes, over.

What isn’t over is the fight over how government ought to go about delivering the outcomes that citizens and residents want. While in the past government’s mode of working used to be well-defined things have become more fuzzy.

Kettl identifies two major shifts here. The first one was Roosevelt’s response to the Great Depression introduced a new mode to US-American government: instead of the federal government doing things itself it would create incentives for local governments using federal grants. This allowed the federal government to increase its reach and power, while letting local government do the actual work.

The second was World War II and the government’s reliance on private contractors. Those contractors didn’t just produce the usual equipment (airplanes, rifles, ammunition, uniforms) needed for the war effort, but also worked on the most sensitive projects of all: the development of the atomic bomb. The bomb was developed by a network of publicly-funded yet privately-operated laboratories.

Kettl does not, in principle, have a problem with this “interwoven” type of governance where boundaries are fuzzy and governments works across its own silos, with private firms and not-for-profit organisations. His contention is that these more complex governance arrangements require more careful yet currently inexistent mechanisms to ensure they remain accountable and effective.

At the source of this problem is the desire to expand the government’s reach without expanding its footprint or headcount. The result are these tenuous governance arrangements where government “interweaves” with a number of other actors. “Government by remote control, through a network of proxies, has also created a jumbled system of accountability”.

Apart from fixing the management and accountability mechanisms used to govern these complex “interwoven” arrangements Kettl identifies a second critical element which government needs to get right: the use of evidence.

Governments have, of course, always used some sort of evidence to make their decisions. But we still often don’t know enough about “what works” and what doesn’t. Unlike some of the more simplistic arguments about evidence in government Kettl recognizes that evidence isn’t politically neutral. He also highlights that policymakers are not looking for perfect evidence, but just want something that’s good enough.

Kettl argues that we need two types of evidence: we need evidence about both the broad policy questions and about which “implementation steps” are working. Kettl’s point about evidence, in a nutshell, is that an “interwoven” government only has a hope of working if it has enough information about what its partners are doing.

Kettl makes his argument specifically about the US government, yet it arguably applies to many others as well. The move towards more “interweaving” has been visible in other governments as well. It has been strongest where ever New Public Management found its most ardent supporters.

Despite the extinction-themed framing this is an optimistic book. Kettl believes in the power of government to be competent and deliver the public goods that citizens deserve. It is also a highly readable book, which makes one hopeful that enough policymakers and civil servants will read it and we’ll be spared the fate of the dinosaurs.

Back to top