Reorganizing Government: Take Out the Trash

This is prompted by a discussion I had with Vassar and others yesterday.  Some of it will be familiar to those of you who’ve read my stuff over the years.  So, I’m sporting another excerpt from “Red on Blue.”  Have a taste and let me have your comments and criticism.

When you take office, somebody who gave or raised money for you is going to tell you that you need to keep the government running smoothly, so you can’t do anything too drastic.  The person who told you that is some sort of lobbyist or player that you think is your friend, or at least your contributor.  That advice is for their benefit, not yours!


After allowing yourself a moment to shed a tear for the lost hopes, dreams, girlfriends, boats, and houses, fire everyone in the government that you have a colorable legal right to fire, and maybe a few more just to show that you can – you, the courts, or God can sort it out later.  Do it within ten seconds of your hand coming off the Bible.  You got that earlier advice because that lobbyist or player had a relationship with those people that he does not want to lose.  That is not your relationship, and you might want to question your relationship with the person who gave you that advice.


The very hardest thing you could do is to stop government from running.  You could fire every politically appointed director, commissioner, or whatever, and nobody would know the difference; the government would just keep on doing what it does.  Behind every one of those political appointees that someone wants you to keep is a career bureaucrat that actually does all the work.  You only need a political appointee in the places that you want to make a change of direction.  The rest of government can just run itself, and it will do so indefinitely.


A few of the political appointees from the prior administration will have supported you.  Keep them – at least for a while, but it’s a lot like marrying a woman that was screwing around on her husband when she hooked up with you – are you sure what she’s doing tonight?  Some of the appointees are relatively apolitical subject matter experts; fire them all and hire back any that are any good – after they kiss the ring.  Let the rest of them lose their houses.  Political appointments are not career jobs, and anyone who bought a half-million dollar house based on their earnings from a political job deserves what happens to them.  The Democrats will bleat and wail.  The day you fire them, they will have starving babies and mommies with cancer on the 6 pm news, but these days the news cycle is 24 hours or less, and everyone will get over it.


The only exception to the “fire them all at once” rule is the potential poster children.  If there are some appointee level employees that behaved badly enough, keep them on and fire them for cause; prosecute them if the situation warrants it.  Even if they resign on their own accord, hunt them down and prosecute them.  Generally, the way to get rid of the prior administration’s appointees is to demand their resignation upon your assumption of office.  You just tell them you are going to do things differently and they don’t fit into your plans.  Generally, the rule is “any reason, no reason, but not an illegal reason.”  The distinguishing characteristics of true appointees are that they are not selected competitively and cannot appeal dismissal; they are as close to “at will” or “serve at the pleasure” employees as you get in government.  But they are not that “at will;” in most states, if you state a cause, you had better be able to prove it has a basis in fact.  If you can identify a truly corrupt one, don’t honor him or her by just demanding the resignation; fire him for cause and make smoke and noise doing it.  By corrupt, I mean true lying and stealing that Joe Sixpack can identify with, not esoteric policy stuff or bureaucratic rule breaking.  If you really have the evidence, hope he sues you for wrongful discharge.  This is all just to make a statement and to improve the morale and productivity of the survivors.


Republicans have never been willing to do the necessary housecleaning, unlike Democrats.  You can be certain that if the Democrats return to power in your government, anyone who even might have thought like a Republican, even merit system employees merely following orders, will be out on their ear.  They do it every time, they do it ruthlessly, and nobody ever says a word since Democrats are good people.  Republican reluctance is based both on the perception that mass firing would be disruptive and an unwillingness to take the bad press.  This conventional wisdom is wrong on both counts.  The government will run just fine without appointees for a while.  As to the bad press, you do not have a choice; you are going to get bad press whether you keep some of them or fire them all, so get your money’s worth.  It is like coming home late; once you are late enough for your wife to be mad, she’s not going to be much madder a couple hours later and making up might even be better.


You need a good lawyer for taking out the trash.  In states where the Attorney General is elected, AG stands for Almost Governor, and he or she is not necessarily your friend.  If the AG is appointed, you are probably safe with her advice.  If you’re not sure, get a good lawyer, one who actually knows employment law, in your kitchen cabinet.  Many states that have had long time Democrat dominance have lots and lots of jobs that look like political appointees but are not.  There is a line of U. S. Supreme Court law, interestingly mostly out of Chicago, that says that if the employee is not in a policy making position, they do not serve at the pleasure no matter what your state law may say.  Make sure that your reach does not exceed your grasp because the lawsuits can be expensive and embarrassing when you fire some clerk because the job was ostensibly appointed – Democrats can get away with things that you cannot.  The trick here is to put the job under the merit system, assuming you have one, and if the person does not meet the qualifications for the merit system job, they hit the street.  Sell it as reform; you are reducing the number of appointees.  It will take your first year to sort all this out, but the process will not make the headlines after the first one or two.


After you find that good lawyer, you need some people to help you run this thing you just took over.  You’re going to have one Helluva time finding them.  It does not matter whether you are the President or a Governor looking to appoint a Cabinet, a Commissioner or Secretary looking for directors or department heads, or a director or section chief just looking for good help, you are going to have a very hard time finding good people to run or work in a government agency.  First, the money stinks, so you are not likely to be able to recruit from the business world.  Second, most of the ideas that make you successful in business doom you to failure in government.  Third, you cannot recruit from academia because they are almost all lefties who hate you, besides, they can’t do anything anyway – those who can, do; those who can’t teach.  This old saw is especially true in Law, Political Science, and Public Administration.  And fourth, there is a Helluva lot of scrutiny of people in high places, especially of Republicans.  Most of us reaching this level of power are Boomers and we have pasts – an affair here, a joint or a line there, a DWI somewhere.  You can hire those people, but they have to give it up on the spot; no “I didn’t inhale” or “I didn’t have sex with that woman” for Republicans.  The correct Republican answer if you’re asked if you ever smoked dope – and you did – is, “Hell yes and I’m disgusted by somebody who was such a hypocrite that he pretended to inhale.”  You just cannot do that sort of thing anymore and you can bet nobody is going to fish your car and dead secretary out of a river and pretend it didn’t happen.  You have to be straight up about it all – just don’t go around volunteering information.  You will get some grief for 24 hours and then it will be old news.  If you try to evade or dissemble, it will go on forever.   If your appointee has a past, he or she had better be totally honest about it and totally straight now or life will be Hell.


Republican success in legislative bodies in recent times gives a new executive some former legislators and legislative staffers to draw on, but you and they will learn quickly enough that being a member of the legislative branch is not much of a training ground for the executive branch.  You are left with those of your true friends who will take a government job, a few people with legislative experience, and the bureaucracy itself.  You will not have much of a bench, but you cannot afford any slackers or failures; bench them and play short – any failure will be yours, not theirs.


You should worry most about your friends.  I use friends here in the word’s political sense.  I am not talking about the person you grew up with and who knows your deepest thoughts – though I could be.  I’m talking about all the friends you acquired on your way up the political ladder.  With the Republican ascendancy of the ‘90s and early ‘00s, there are lots and lots of born-again Republicans around just ever so eager to write a check, put up a sign, or host a fundraiser.  Those people you met campaigning, at the Chamber, or at Rotary don’t know much about government except that it dispenses lots of money, and you could be their ticket to have it dispense some of that money to their business or friends.  One of my Democrat bosses headed the agency that bought all the State’s computers and went straight from the State to one of the largest computer companies in the world, Ethics Act be damned.  He was a Democrat, Democrats are good people, good people do not do bad things, and therefore, he didn’t do a bad thing.  It is OK for them to do things like that.  You can’t.  If you or your friends even look like you might make a single dime off something you want to do, you can’t do it.  Business as usual for Democrats is graft and corruption for Republicans.  They will hang you from the masthead of every paper in the state.  James Carville had it right when he said, “you spend the election f**king your enemies and the transition f**king your friends.”  Mostly, you are better off without friends.


A special category of friends is lawyers.  You will find lawyers who have gravitated to the Party or to you personally.  The first question you should ask is, “why aren’t they making so much money in private practice that they wouldn’t be interested in government work?”  If you have satisfied yourself with the answer to that question, then you must look at what lawyers are all about.  Any halfway good lawyer can find an argument for anything and a justification for everything.  That skill is what they paid all that money to learn how to do.  Little things like ethics and morality are only a part, often only a minor part, of their analysis.  The other way that lawyers get you in trouble is that they always think they are right.  A lawyer has to believe he can win.  That is his job, wresting a verdict from a jury.  That is all OK when they are out practicing law, but when you involve them in policy, it has real risks.  A lawyer turned political manager will ride his policy decisions right over the nearest cliff, oblivious to the fact that the cliff was perfectly obvious to real people.  Republican leaning lawyers are a source of talent for you, but you had best watch them like a hawk.  Governor Murkowski learned that the hard way with his longtime associate and Attorney General – the fallout from that little “indiscretion” continued to bedevil for his whole term.[1]  Attorneys just don’t think like real people, and that can get you in real trouble.


Republican legislators have done the Party and the nation a great disservice by being so frugal.  To show how lean and mean they are, they have very small staffs and employ few consultants, and then they don’t pay any of them worth a damn.  First, this puts them at the mercy of the executive branch, which has subject matter experts coming out its ears.  Second, it gives them no place to put friends from the executive branch when those friends get in trouble with Democrats.  And third, it means that most of a legislative staffer’s experience is constituent service, not nuts and bolts government.  None of these are good things.  But Republican legislative staffers do give you a cohort of loyal talent to draw on, though they, like you, won’t know where the light switches and rest rooms are.


If you follow my advice and fire everyone in political appointments from the prior administration, there are going to be what looks like a whole bunch of jobs vacant and some supporters who want jobs.  Today’s typical Republican supporter and voter are so antigovernment that they believe, with some justification, that any damned fool can run any government agency better than it is being run.  That may be true at the policy level in a Blue or near-Blue state, and it is certainly true even down into the bureaucracy in a doughnut city or one of the big longtime union and Democrat dominated cities.  The Party and your supporters are going to give you Hell, but you cannot put people in jobs who don’t know the job – you’re better off leaving it vacant and letting the ‘crats just keep on keeping on.  A lot of the positions are unnecessary sinecures for Democrats anyway, so eliminate them.  Every campaign lives or dies by the people who do the political grunt work, but licking stamps, putting up signs, working the phones, or raising a little money really does not qualify someone to run a major agency, no matter how much the people who do that sort of work might think it does.  Just look at what happened to President Bush for putting the former counsel of a horse breeding association in charge of FEMA.  I’m sure his connections and his Republican credentials were impeccable, but he damn well didn’t have the qualifications and experience to run a major federal agency.  FEMA and the Katrina response probably would have looked just as bad no matter who was running it, but the questionable appointment just made the Director and the President into a spectacularly good target.  There are jobs you can put the 22 year old son of a major supporter in, but they shouldn’t be responsible for anything.  There are plenty of “positions” in government to hire the people you just have to hire into, just make sure these people understand that they don’t have a job other than looking good and that you’ll fire them if they cause the slightest upset.  Tell them to think of it as a job shadowing opportunity.  And tell them not to even think of telling the ‘crats what to do.  If they have a problem with what the ‘crats are doing, they tell you or your appointee above them and let somebody competent deal with it.


And then there is the bureaucracy.  I am not talking about the appointee level.  Remember, you fired all of them as soon as your hand came off the Bible.  The upper level of the merit system bureaucracy – the people who didn’t get their jobs at a cocktail party – is mostly competent and mostly apolitical.  They are relatively affluent and secure and most are pretty conservative – some of them might have even voted for you.  Fundamentally, they don’t care for or about you.  My attitude always was that I knew every political type was going to make me happy at least once; I was going to a going away party.  High level but non-political bureaucrats do their jobs like those British officers built the bridge over the River Kwai; they have a job to do, and they don’t think much about why or for whom they are doing it.  But fundamentally, if a right-thinking person comes along and reminds them of who they are, they will blow up the bridge if asked. 


This is your greatest asset.  The government will keep on keeping on.  The roads will be maintained, the laws will be enforced, the welfare checks will go out, and the paychecks will cash no matter what you do.  Make it clear to them that they are free to do their jobs even if their boss just got fired.  Odds are they didn’t like the boss much anyway; most government agencies run in spite of political managers, not because of them.  A few of the merit system supervisors and managers might have political ambitions and act on them.  If they do, squash them like bugs.  You won’t have to do it but once or twice, and the rest will get the message.  Some of them are dangerous in another way; working for administration after administration at a near-policy level has made them completely cynical and amoral; they will do anything if asked without the slightest thought for whether it should be done, so make sure you have someone loyal to you over every function and keeping an eye on them.  If your personnel system allows for it give the top-level employees the money the political appointee would have been making; “acting” is the common term for it.  That way, you don’t have to appoint anyone, the work gets done, and someone is going to be appreciative of a better paycheck.


After you take out the trash, you will not have much political level management around.  Your true friends and loyalists will give you enough people to put someone in charge of the big subdivisions – usually styled departments – in the government and a pool of people to put in charge of some of the operating subdivisions of the government where you have a need for immediate change of direction.  For now, that is all you can expect.  Now you have to make a government that a Republican can actually run.


Rearranging the Furniture


Most state and local governments roughly emulate the departmental structure of the federal government.  Stop right here and think a moment about who built the federal government’s structure and why.  The modern federal government was built by Democrats to serve Democrat constituencies.  The Environmental Protection Agency was a Nixon era concession to a Democrat Congress and serves the Greenies.  No Greenie is ever going to support a Republican.  The Department of Education was Carter’s gift to the National Extortion Association.  No teacher is ever going to support a Republican.  Hell, usually half or more of the delegates to a Democrat convention are National Extortion Association members.  The Department of Labor exists to keep Davis – Bacon wages high, workers on Workers’ Comp rather than the unions’ health insurance trusts, and to funnel grant money to training non-profits headed by former union officers.  The Department of Health and Human Services exists … well don’t get me started on DHHS.  Suffice it to say that the employees and clients of a social services agency are not a likely Republican constituency.   Knock out some walls and rearrange the furniture of your government.


To the degree that your government is comprised of elected heads of functional units, you are stuck with them until you can get the necessary statutory or constitutional changes.  If you have the votes, go after those changes immediately.  Remember, you just won an election and even those who hate fear.  Use your executive authority to reorganize everything within your authority, and maybe a few things that aren’t – a good expensive appeal to the Supreme Court might get you some lawyer support.  Do it all with Executive Orders or your government’s equivalent; you do not have time for legislation.  At this time, speed is your friend and their enemy.  You cannot give the Democrats and the bureaucracy time to even breathe much less coalesce in opposition to you.  The best time to kick them is when they are down.


Every government does pretty much the same things: it has to regulate itself; control its assets and revenues; arrest and incarcerate bad guys; operate and maintain the roads, airports, and ports; promote and regulate labor, commerce, and natural resources/agriculture; educate the kiddies; and provide for those who can’t or won’t provide for themselves.  While the economies and structures of governments vary, those groups pretty well encompass all the things that a government does.  Use your executive authority to organize around these functional groups.  You have a good chance of finding competent, loyal heads for six or eight groups, but never will you find the fifteen or twenty or more, in some states many more, that some governments require under Democrat structures.


In Alaska our logical functional groups were: General Government comprising our departments of Revenue, Administration, Commerce, Labor, and Education; Public Protection comprising our departments of Public Safety, Corrections, and Military and Veterans’ Affairs; Resources comprising Environmental Conservation, Natural Resources, and Fish and Game, and our two biggies: Transportation and Public Facilities and Health and Social Services are each independent units.  Your government will be different depending on what is important to your area and constituencies, but you get the idea.


We were not able in the Murkowski administration to reorganize the whole government this way; the lobbyists won that one, but we did organize all our human resources administration this way to prototype it.  The internal opposition was significant but the reorganization has been successful in the main, though its future is uncertain in the Palin/Parnell administration.  Governor Palin kept the reorganized system in place, but the assault continues.  It certainly saved us money and helped ensure that employees were actually qualified for the job to which they were appointed and paid appropriately.   Under the old system, fifteen different departments were paying employees fifteen different ways for the same work – almost always wrong and almost always too much.  We had tremendous competence problems with people who were once under department authority and are now under central authority and supervised by people who know something.  When the departments bitched about mistakes, we just told them we didn’t give them lobotomies when we brought them over.  Your objective should be to absolutely control the money, the people, and the procurement.  Even if you are forced to deal with an elected head of a functional group, if you control his money, hiring, and buying, you control him.  If he’s not a friend of yours, he is not going to like the feeling.


Every government entity needs money, people, and stuff.  Move the control of the money, people, and stuff to the highest organizational level where there still is commonality.  If your government has central administration – finance, personnel, and procurement – under the chief executive or in its own department under an appointed head, this is fairly easy to do.  Just sharpen your pencil, redraw the organization charts, rewrite the delegations, and give some orders.  If your government has these functions under an elected head, e.g., an elected secretary of state, it is much more problematic, especially if you are not friends.  I have never had to deal with it, since most Western states have powerful central governments.  But even with an elected administrative head, you are the governor or mayor and he isn’t; use some muscle.


Most governments do everything in at least triplicate.  There is a governor or mayor’s budget office, and each department has a budget office, and each division of the department has a budget office, and so on for accounting, people, and procurement.  None of the subordinate ones add value, but each of them is dedicated to hiding what it is doing from all the levels above it.  Move it as close to the top and to someone loyal to you as you can.  Only where there is a truly unique function should it be allowed any independent control of money, people, or stuff.  And then audit everything it does.  I’m not being paranoid; I just know government.  Well yes, I am paranoid; the question is, am I paranoid enough?


Now you have an idea of what to do, then there’s the doing of it.  First, you do not need a damned consensus; you got one when you or your boss got elected.  As soon as you say anything about reorganization, somebody is going to tell you that you’ve got to get a bunch of ‘crats together and get “buy in” from them.  ‘Crats are amazingly clear-headed when they have a gun to their heads, and I’ve almost never seen one make a bad decision when given all the relevant information.  Tell them that their world is going to be a certain way tomorrow and the only choice they have is whether to be in it or not.  You will have your “buy in.”


Governor Murkowski wholeheartedly adopted two reorganization initiatives early on; human resources centralization and information technology centralization.  We called it “integration,” since centralization had acquired a hot button political connotation in the Hickel administration.   Planning for the HR integration was done by a select, loyal few by dark of night.  The players, including a bunch of Knowles’ holdover directors, were brought into the Governor’s Conference Room, told how it was going to be, and told they were on the program or out of the game.  That reorganization is now ancient history; there’s still a certain amount of backbiting, but no one would dare openly oppose it.  On the other hand, a holdover director convinced the powers that be that they needed a consultant to “facilitate” a “consensus” amongst all the “stakeholders” and “customers” in the IT integration.  They are still talking about IT integration and, if there is any change at all, IT is even more decentralized today than when we took office. 


Take note of the buzzwords I used in the two preceding paragraphs.  If anyone around you uses the words “buy in,” “consensus,” “stakeholders,”  “facilitator,” or “customers” in any discussion about your administration’s policies or organizational structure, threaten to fire him.  If he does it again, fire him.  Those words and the concepts of government that underlie them are designed by Democrats and academics to prevent change and further the agendae of the elites.  The primary product that the Democrats use to keep their behinds is the big chairs is talking about how to do things better.  “Examining our processes” is a buzz phrase synonym for talking that you should add to the list of words above.  You have to actually produce a product, and that is not done by talking.  You’ll be called an autocrat or worse.  Just make sure it is the right people calling you that.

[1] Attorney General Greg Renkes’ travails perfectly illustrate my point about lawyers.  What he did was at least arguably legal and not nearly as objectionable as some things openly and notoriously done by the Democrats in the prior administration, but since he was a Republican, the Democrats and the press descended like vultures.  You’ll hear the phrase “arguably legal” a lot from lawyers; alarm bells should go off whenever you hear it.  Something that is arguably legal for a Democrat is probably illegal for you.  Greg tried to fight it for a while but as the good Roman drew his warm bath, Greg took his vacation and discovered how much he missed being with his family.