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How would a President Romney manage? Consultants

Consultants, get ready because if there is a President Romney, you might just be in the cat's bird seat.

The former Massachusetts governor, who is one of the front runners for the Republican nomination for president, told the WSJ's editorial board that consultants could help the federal government's management woes.  [Registration is required to access the article; if you can't get the above link, try this one, but you have to be quick. It eventually expires.]

When asked for details about how he would reduce the size of government if elected, he mentions two things: The organizational chart of the executive branch, and consultants. "There's no corporation in America that would have a CEO, no COO, just a CEO, with 30 direct reports."

Running a government organized like this is, he explains, impossible. "So I would probably have super-cabinet secretaries, or at least some structure that McKinsey would guide me to put in place." He seems to catch a note of surprise in his audience, but he presses on: "I'm not kidding, I probably would bring in McKinsey. . . . I would consult with the best and the brightest minds, whether it's McKinsey, Bain, BCG or Jack Welch."

This is not a new idea. The New Democrats too became enamored of the idea of "reinventing government," and Al Gore extolled the potential to making government work more like business as vice president. Except in that case, the larger goal was to show that government need not be sclerotic, bloated and inefficient. Mr. Romney seems to view it more as a turnaround project -- trim the fat, reduce expenditure and shrink the organization.

Even aside from the government management issues, the story gives a fascinating view about how Romney manages: It's the data, stupid.

The impression he gives in person is not, however, that of a salesman tailoring his message to his audience. It is, instead, precisely the person he described in the opening moments of our meeting: A man who goes first to the data, who refers to what some would call their "core beliefs" as "concepts."

One other interesting graph:

Politicians don't like to describe themselves as ideological, but most have a core of political precepts. Mr. Romney describes his thus: "Obviously, I have -- just like in the consulting world -- I have 'concepts' that I believe. I believe the free market works and government doesn't -- that when government takes over a function which can be effectively managed in the free market, we make a huge mistake. I think government is almost by necessity inefficient, inflexible, duplicative, wasteful, expensive and burdensome." This is fairly traditional small-government, free-market conservative talk -- or would be, if it weren't framed as a "concept," like those used in consulting.

I should mentioned that I actually missed this story in the WSJ. Time magazine columnist Michael Kinsley wrote about it in this week's issue.

If Romney stands for anything, he stands for management consultantship. This is a belief that pragmatism and brainpower are superior to ideology in understanding the world, although this amounts to an ideology of its own. Romney went on and on about how much he loves "data." Give him a problem, give him the data, give him Jack Welch...

The notion that the cacophony of politics can be replaced with the smooth hum of expertise and that all the challenges our society faces can be solved by making the government run more efficiently has a long and generally laughable history. It is not inherently either liberal or conservative. President Dwight Eisenhower actually did hire McKinsey to redesign the presidency. President Jimmy Carter talked endlessly of "reinventing government." He took the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and turned it into two departments. Then there was Ross Perot, the presidential candidate who babbled about opening the hood of a car and tinkering with the innards. President Bill Clinton showed his lack of interest by assigning the subject to Vice President Al Gore. And now there is Romney, who told the Journal that--depending on the data, of course, and whatever McKinsey recommends--he would create a layer of "super-Cabinet" positions so that the President doesn't have "30 direct reports."

If big-shot CEOs are happy to hire McKinsey and then do whatever its 25-year-old hotshots recommend, why shouldn't voters do the same? If you're looking for a reason, look no further than the Times of London, Oct. 29, in which the head of McKinsey, one Ian Davis, addressed the topic of "government as a business." We "must enter the dialogue on how to help resolve" disputatious issues, he recommends. Well, isn't that the definition of politics? But Davis rejects politics. "This is not a partisan issue but an issue beyond political stance."

I dunno. Maybe it sounds better in PowerPoint. Or maybe he's saving the good stuff for paying customers.

I think Kinsley is just a tad bit cynical. I certainly share his skepticism of consultants -- consultants who don't provide results. But it can also be very helpful to have a consultant who can provide outside guidance -- a management shrink, if you will.

Furthermore, it seems that management issues can be less political. (Wishful thinking?)

A few other interesting items from this week's Time:

* Who should be Time's Person of the Year?

As the end of the year approaches, Time has its annual Person of the Year. Last year, of course, it was the controversial YOU. Read last year's Person of the Year here. I thought it was accurate in the Web 2.0 world, but it sure was controversial.

So his year, Time is asking various people who the editors should declare as the person of the year. They asked First Lady Laura Bush, who said the people of Burma. Here is one of the comments from Chris DeWolfe, a musician and co-creator of the popular social-networking site MySpace.com.

The person who has had the biggest effect on the world over the past year is Al Gore. He brought the issue of global warming to the forefront and engaged many different people demographically and professionally. He has single-handedly taken this from somewhat of a fad of the year to the most important global crisis that's facing us today and in which almost everyone is a believer.

Read the others here.

* The state of us

Time this week takes a look at "One Day in America."

One Day in America
In a country this big and diverse, being average still leaves you room to be different

There are some really nice graphics worth checking out. One looks at our commutes, and be sure to check the "city population shift" tab, which shows that cities grow…and then most people leave. They have great maps of DC, NY, San Francisco.

They also have some graphics on how happy people are with their jobs. Government folks seem to do well; journalists, not so well.

* DARPA's really great idea -- the great race.

DARPA doesn't get nearly enough credit for its Grand Challenge. Time gives DARPA some kudos, however.

A few years ago, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon's blue-sky high-tech research wing that everyone calls DARPA, decided it was interested in developing robotic vehicles that could drive themselves: no remote control, no human intervention, only artificial intelligence behind the wheel. But instead of hiring a bunch of fancy nerds and sticking them in an undisclosed location until they came up with a robo-car, DARPA held an open-invitation unmanned-car rally. Come on down, bring the kids, and may the fastest bot win. Grand prize: $2 million.

Posted on Nov 19, 2007 at 12:17 PM


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