Public good not always second to politics

Especially outside the Washington, D.C., Beltway, most Americans believe that the idealistic rhetoric appearing in the statements and speeches of senior government officials, filled with concern for the public good, is for public consumption only. Peel the onion, most people assume, and you will reveal the behind-the-scenes, not-for-public-consumption reality of the discourse and practice of government, which, in this view, bears more resemblance to a gathering of Mafia dons than to the words in speeches.

Where does this assumption come from? One source is the Watergate tapes, which revealed a Richard Nixon who bore little resemblance to his pious, even self-righteous public persona. Political thrillers and other Washington novels, which routinely feature an enormous gap between public idealism and private depravity, are another source of the conventional view. And the general public's suspicion of government and public officials feeds this belief.

My own experience in government was very different from the common assumptions about what goes on inside the corridors of power. Having been present at countless internal discussions, I can report that while there was a lot of political strategizing, there also was a lot of discussion about the merits of what made sense from the point of view of the public good. While the tone of internal meetings was clearly not the same as a graduate public policy seminar, it was more like a seminar than a Mafia meeting.

It is not just my personal experiences that suggest the cynical view is, well, too cynical. If you listen to tapes that have come out of the private conversations of other presidents, you'll hear a tone very different from the Watergate tapes. It sounds more like serious people trying to deal seriously with serious problems. Ironically, further evidence, of a strange sort, comes from some of the secret documents from the archives of the Soviet Union and East Germany that have come out since the fall of communism.

For example, I read a fascinating book that came out after the fall of the Berlin Wall containing secret memos that the East German secret police sent to the Communist leadership during 1988, the year the wall came down, about the political situation inside the country. Anybody expecting the memos to outline Machiavellian strategies for keeping the people down would have been astonished. The memos were full of discussions about imperialist plots and misleading the good workers of East Germany, language that sound-ed more like a Communist Party newspaper than the calculations of gangsters plotting about how to hold on to personal power.

This insight also should be applied to how some government information technology folks view vendors. I recently sat in on a private presentation of a proposal that a prime contractor had just delivered to the government for a major IT/business process re-engineering procurement. The "capture manager" for the prime presented the highlights of the proposal to other executives from the prime and to senior executives from other team members. (I was present as a consultant to the team.)

I know that many government IT folks assume that behind vendor rhetoric about solutions and customer satisfaction lies the reality of a vendor plotting about buying in and getting well (making a profit in later years of the contract), mixed with strategizing about how dimwitted bureaucrats can be fooled. But permeating this presentation was language about how the team was confident it had developed the best approach to solving the customer's problems, together with a commitment to customer satisfaction and to developing a genuine partnership.

Sure government and industry have people for whom any dressed-up public rhetoric is merely a cover for the ruthless pursuit of power or profit. I'll never forget the lines of a member of Congress, caught on tape 20 years ago by Justice Department agents running a corruption sting operation: "Money talks and bull---- walks."

But the message to cynics - including Americans who distrust their government and some government folks who distrust industry - should be that, more often than not, when you peel the onion, underneath is still an onion. And if you believe, as I do, that one way to increase the chances that we will achieve the public good through the actions of government is for people in government to make an honest effort to do so, then this is good news for how our institutions, in government and industry, are working.

--Kelman was the administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy from 1993 to 1997. He is now Weatherhead Professor of Public Management at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

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