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Lessons from a bureaucrat: How Paul Volcker set an example for America today


Paul Volcker, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve who died in December 2019 at age 92, was fond of quoting Thomas Edison, “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

Before his death, the nonprofit Volcker Alliance and a group of opinion leaders came together to reflect upon his life passion: building a public service dedicated to and capable of achieving excellence. “Public Service and Good Governance for the Twenty-first Century,” which compiles the group’s analysis, shares compelling insights about the state of American institutions, public service and what the future holds. 

The book’s two overarching messages are identifiable in our struggle to conquer COVID-19.  The first is that America’s capacity to govern itself is severely damaged. Although the pandemic showcases indicators — from lumbering initial response, to tardiness in testing, to chaos around provision of personal protective equipment — evidence for failures in our governance system is not new. It was present, too, in failures like the 2010 Gulf oil spill and the 2013 launch of the Affordable Care Act’s exchange.       

The other overarching message is America’s innate commitment to do better — a resilient spirit defined by willingness to correct past failures through reform. The heartbreak of the pandemic remains with us, but already attention is turning to a dispassionate assessment of what has gone wrong and how we can design a better response in the future.      

Past successes and recent failures speak volumes about why our governance system is broken.  One reason is disinvestment in administrative capacity. Decades of disinvestment in federal administrative systems and human capital have forced many agencies to pursue their missions with limited capacity. Federal decline may not affect state and local governments, but spillovers across the federal system are likely, as illustrated by decisions to eliminate the National Security Council directorate for global health and security and reductions at CDC, which have had far-reaching consequences.       

Our ability to govern has also declined as policymakers have progressively outsourced services to private entities. Government is increasingly in the business of monitoring and managing third parties. The transfer involves not only substitution of private for public human capital but also transfer of political power and decision-making to different spheres of American society.

We know, too, from a long string of government successes post-WWII, from ensuring safe food and drinking water to repeated increases in the minimum wage, that bipartisanship is integral to the winning formula. The current partisan divide — where success is measured purely as winning for the party rather than the public interest — is unsustainable if our American democracy is to survive. 

Do we have to address the disinvestment in administrative capacity, the hollowing of government, and hyperpartisanship to resolve the crisis in governance? Yes! Like intense mitigation, we need to face our shortcomings head on and resolve what ails us. 

America’s ability periodically to reinvent itself resides with our wealth of resources, many of them non-financial. Our commitment to science, our service ethic, and the abundant intellectual talent in our universities have repeatedly led the way. The same resources can drive resolution of our broken governance system.

Science has already created avenues for fixes to our broken governance system. Artificial intelligence, for example, has the potential to empower citizens and fill gaps created from administrative disinvestment. At the same time, AI requires the acquisition of talent that will integrate it effectively and monitor its consequences. Blockchain technology creates similar opportunities to make public regulatory processes smarter and more efficient. Like the internet, a transformative technology incubated by government, artificial intelligence and similar advances are fundamental for future reforms.  

An equally important resource is American universities, the wellsprings of emerging technology and talent. The Progressive Era brought enormous public service educational innovations a century ago, which included professional education for social workers, city managers and public administration generalists. American universities can be the engines behind tomorrow’s laboratories of democracy. Experiments underway from Syracuse to Sacramento could transform how we care for children, homeless, seniors and others, redefining public services in the future.     

The least tangible and most important resource for reforming governance is American’s commitment to public service. Our embrace of public service stretches from the founding fathers to the present, epitomized by people like Paul Volcker who sacrificed wealth for life-long toil, and potential disapproval, as a “bureaucrat.” Volcker’s sacrifice and personal courage transformed an economy that experienced persistently high inflation to one where low inflation has persisted for four decades.           

Yes, America’s ability to govern itself is damaged, but abundant resources position us to correct shortcomings using our resilience and commitment to reform. We can fix what ails us — both COVID-19 and our broken governance system.

James L. Perry is distinguished professor emeritus of the Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University, and former editor-in-chief of “Public Administration Review.” He edited University of Pennsylvania Press’ “Public Service and Good Governance for the Twenty-first Century.”

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