The Wrong Reading List; the Philosophy of the First Bush Administration Was That Government Needs to Run More like a Business, but the Reverse Is Now More Often True

Newsweek, December 20, 2004 | Go to article overview

The Wrong Reading List; the Philosophy of the First Bush Administration Was That Government Needs to Run More like a Business, but the Reverse Is Now More Often True


Byline: Richard Haass (Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "The Bureaucratic Entrepreneur: How to Be Effective in Any Unruly Organization.")

In any bookstore, you'll find business shelves stuffed with case studies, how-tos and inspirational tales about dancing with elephants and moving your cheese. But you will be hard-pressed to find even a few books on how to succeed in government or the nonprofit sector. This may not seem odd, until you consider that 7 million more Americans now work in the public sector than in manufacturing. Yet most people think business guides are enough. Indeed, this is a common refrain: we need to run the government like a business.

This would appear to have been the philosophy of the first term of George W. Bush. The president has an M.B.A. from Harvard and worked in oil and baseball. Vice President Dick Cheney is the former head of Halliburton; Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ran drug behemoth GD Searle. Former Treasury secretary Paul O'Neill was the top guy at Alcoa, and his successor, John Snow, ran transportation giant CSX. But it's not even clear that business is good training for business anymore.

The environment in which business people work is changing. Take Paul O'Neill. He never quite understood that he was no longer the ultimate boss or that speaking his mind was dangerous, especially when he spoke the truth about the dollar, Congress or Argentina. O'Neill was shown the door after less than two years in the job. Then there is Charlotte Beers, the advertising executive brought in to revive U.S. public diplomacy. Her attempts to improve America's image in the Arab and Muslim worlds through media spots depicting happy American Muslims fell flat. It is one thing to sell Uncle Ben's rice, another to sell Uncle Sam's foreign policy.

Why do so many people coming out of business run into trouble? In business, success can be measured by profits. How does one measure the quality of a public service, like law enforcement? By the number of arrests? Of accidents? There are other key differences. Few businesses enjoy a monopoly, but many nonprofits do. There is one city hall. Businesses are also free to go out of business, while government is not. Every remote post office or obsolete military base has its local champion, and so they stay.

Above all, business people tend to operate in a more structured, less complex environment. …

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