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Bring in the Wonks

December 11, 2016

We make fun of “policy wonks,” specialists and generalists who study, teach and write about government including foreign policy, national security, trade and other subjects vital to the United States. Occasionally they are tapped to serve in Presidential Administrations where their knowledge is useful in identifying opportunities and calling attention to perils. One such wonk warned that the Castro government was building a large air strip on the island of Grenada. That information was moved up the chain of command and brought to the attention of President Reagan.

Today we’re seeing that President-elect Donald Trump is interested in bringing businessmen into government and we may learn next week that the head of Exxon will be nominated to be Secretary of State.  Last week Wilbur Ross was nominated to be Commerce Secretary and Andrew Puzder, CEO of Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., is the nominee for Secretary of Labor.

Each brings knowledge and expertise in business to these Cabinet Departments, but none has experience in government. Does that matter? Shouldn’t government be run like a business?

Anyone who has served in government knows that government agencies cannot be run like Exxon, Hardee’s or the D. L. Ross company. The principal reason is that policy of government Departments is carried out by professional bureaucrats who work for their Departmental divisions, or, in the worst cases, for the interests of the bureaucracy.

As head of a Department you can announce policies, but there is no guarantee that they will be carried out. In many instances, the bureaucrats will dig in their heels and delay, divert or shut down policies that are contrary to their interests. The head of Exxon is master of all his employees. If one or more screw up, he can immediately remove them. That isn’t how government works.

For starters, a Department head may not learn of a delay, diversion or screw up until it is reported by news media. A solution is to place your persons in all key places in a bureaucracy, but if you run an oil company you will not know which persons have the foreign policy expertise that is needed. When you do put in your own people, the bureaucracy will realize that you are a threat to their hegemony and begin, at first, to co-opt your person, or, if that fails, to organize an effort to destroy him or her. That is easily done, if your person has no government experience.

Wilbur Ross knows how to do deals, but one of the best things a new Commerce Secretary can do is move the Commerce Department out of the way of entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs create markets and thus new industries are created by individuals–not government grants. Entrepreneurs don’t waste their time filling out grant applications. And just what will Andrew Puzder do at the Department of Labor beside getting into trouble?

The problem all political appointees must deal with is how to “control” the federal bureaucracy. The only way to do that is by knowing policy, knowing which division of a Department is responsible for that policy, and monitoring how policy is carried out by that division. In other words, bring in the wonks!

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