From the former secretary of defense and author of the acclaimed #1 best-selling memoir Duty, a characteristically direct, informed, and urgent assessment of why big institutions are failing us and how smart, committed leadership can effect real improvement regardless of scale.
Across the realms of civic and private enterprise alike, bureaucracies vitally impact our security, freedoms, and everyday life. With so much at stake, competence, efficiency, and fiscal prudence are essential, yet Americans know these institutions fall short. Many despair that they are too big and too hard to reform.
Robert Gates disagrees. Having led change successfully at three monumental organizations—the CIA, Texas A&M University, and the Department of Defense—he offers us the ultimate insider’s look at how major bureaus, organizations, and companies can be transformed, which is by turns heartening and inspiring and always instructive.
With practical, nuanced advice on tailoring reform to the operative culture (we see how Gates worked within the system to increase diversity at Texas A&M); effecting change within committees; engaging the power of compromise (“In the real world of bureaucratic institutions, you almost never get all you want when you want it”); and listening and responding to your team, Gates brings the full weight of his wisdom, candor, and devotion to civic duty to inspire others to lead desperately needed change.
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ROBERT M. GATES served as secretary of defense under both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama. He was also an officer in the United States Air Force and worked for the CIA before being appointed director of the agency. A member of the National Security Council staff in four administrations, he served eight presidents of both political parties. He was president of Texas A&M University from 2002 to 2006, is currently chancellor of the College of William & Mary, was named president of the Boy Scouts of America in 2013, and has served on several corporate boards of directors.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Why Bureaucracies So Often Fail Us
Everybody hates bureaucracies, even those who work in them. Yet in twenty-first-century America, apart from a handful of hermits and survivalists living off the grid, dealing with impenetrable, impersonal, infinitely complex, obdurate, arrogant, and often stupefyingly incompetent bureaucracies is an everyday travail for everyone. Think about it: Social Security. Medicare. Local, state, and federal taxing agencies. Getting a driver’s license. Obtaining documents for business, remodeling your house, or getting a building permit. Any federal department or agency. Dealing with the phone company, your credit card issuer, a credit bureau, a billing error by a big chain store. Navigating airport security, health-care insurance, university and public school administrations.
Hardly a day passes in the life of any American without his or her having to confront one or another bureaucracy, standing in line, dialing a telephone number, only to enter an automated labyrinth seemingly devoid of humans and humanity, being placed on indefinite hold, trying to access a bad government or business Web site, or being shuffled from one office to the next to find that one person, the anomaly, who can fix a problem. Encounters with a bureaucracy almost always have stress and frustration as by-products. And finding someone in a bureaucracy who is pleasant and can solve one’s problem quickly is so unusual as to be very nearly a life-altering experience. President Lyndon Johnson once said, “If the first person who answers the phone cannot answer your question, it is a bureaucracy.” Don’t we all know it.
Despite political paralysis in Washington and elsewhere, bureaucracies inexorably—day by day, year by year—intrude ever more pervasively into our daily lives. They influence our health, our safety, our economic well-being, our children, what we eat, what we drive, and every business, farm, and educational institution in the land.
Yet even as bureaucratic tentacles extend their reach into every nook and cranny of America, the litany of their incompetence and arrogance grows exponentially. Many of these institutions are now indispensable, but their repeated and highly publicized sins of omission and commission have shaken the public’s confidence that they—that government in particular—can do anything right. Just a sampling of lapses and failures in recent years regardless of who was minding the store in Congress or the White House is profoundly disturbing: 9/11 itself, a failure of intelligence and law enforcement of monumental consequence; the failure of virtually all our financial regulatory and administrative bodies to anticipate and prevent the abuses that led to the financial meltdown in 2008–9; the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and other disasters; the lack of planning for post-invasion Iraq in 2003; the scandalous treatment of outpatient wounded warriors at Walter Reed Army Medical Center; the multiple failures of the Veterans Affairs Department; challenges to the integrity of the Internal Revenue Service; lapses and scandals of the Secret Service; the initial handling of the Ebola crisis by the Centers for Disease Control; the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare); the ever-changing and inconsistent rules relating to airport security; the extraordinary waste of development dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan; underperforming public schools; the inability to control our southern border; and so much more. The institutions—the bureaucracies—responsible for these disasters and embarrassments are crucial to us. Some of them have previously been among our most respected organizations. Now they are failing us.
One of my favorite sayings about government—attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte, of all people—is “Never mistake for malice that which is easily explained by stupidity or incompetence.” No one set out to make bureaucracies the enemy of ordinary people, resistant to change, impervious to new realities, and incompetent. Few if any individuals choose public service as a career because they want to make life miserable for people or to work for some hapless bureaucracy. Indeed, I can attest from decades of working with talented and dedicated public servants, the opposite is often true. And yet the humorist Will Rogers could say decades ago, “I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.”
The world of business—the private sector—as I have observed it both as a customer and from the corporate boardroom has its own issues with bureaucracy. While the obstacles to cutting costs and becoming more efficient are more onerous for the public sector—local, state, and federal—leaders in both the public and the private sectors face multiple barriers to innovation and reform to cope with new and changing circumstances. For example, leaders in both sectors often encounter entrenched cultures that make real change difficult, as well as lower-level organizations resistant to guidance from the top, determined to preserve their piece of the cake and their status. Trimming organizational deadwood can be as challenging in the business world as in public institutions. It is a rare soul who has not been frustrated and maddened by multiple business bureaucracies—not to mention disastrous business decisions that cost jobs and create economic turmoil and heartache.
But for most businesses, success and self-preservation require that leaders and employees work hard every day to innovate and change with (or before) the times, to overcome sluggishness, poor customer service, and the stifling effect of layer upon layer of management that inevitably delays and complicates decision making. As a rule, companies that do not promote innovation, strive to reduce overhead costs and managerial layering, and become more customer-friendly don’t do well in the long term.
The public sector, however, faces multiple unique obstacles to reform, whether it’s cutting costs, becoming more efficient, encouraging innovation, or changing to cope with new challenges or changed circumstances. And no matter how different in purpose or size, for nearly all public bureaucracies those obstacles are the same.
The everyday experiences of Americans make a compelling case that bureaucracies do not work and cannot be reformed, that we are stuck. After so many highly visible failures, public opinion polls show that, as I’ve said, a majority of our citizens have lost confidence in our institutions and in government itself. The political Left is too often indifferent to obvious bureaucratic incompetence and failure because it believes that whatever the problem, government is the solution. It’s tough making the case for more government when what we have works so poorly. The political Right welcomes bureaucratic incompetence as proof that government rarely does anything well, and thus it reinforces its belief that whatever the problem, government involvement will probably only make things worse.
We can—and will—continue to argue endlessly about the proper role of government in the United States, but the fact is we have a bunch of it and most of it doesn’t work very well. Because we actually do need government, failure to fix it imposes huge financial costs in terms of incompetence, time wasted, and inefficiency, not to mention the cost in public cynicism and the loss of credibility of both government and those who lead it.
In truth, virtually every bureaucracy needs to reform: to modernize, get rid of paralyzing procedural and operational barnacles that have accumulated over decades, reduce waste, and become more efficient and effective. When in 2010 we could find $180 billion to cut (over a several-year period) in bureaucratic overhead in the Pentagon in just a few months, you have some idea of the “opportunity” offered by far-reaching reform. Defense is far from alone in this regard.
I believe bureaucracies can be fixed: changed, made more cost-effective, user-friendly, efficient and responsive, and shaped to meet new problems and challenges even in an age of austerity. I know because, with the help of some great colleagues, I did it at three very different institutions I led—the Central Intelligence Agency and the other dozen or so U.S. intelligence agencies; Texas A&M University, now the nation’s fifth biggest; and the Department of Defense, the largest and most complex organization on the planet. All three, and virtually all other public institutions, have similar challenges to change and reform. And my colleagues and I at all three places showed that a dysfunctional political environment is not, in itself, an overriding impediment to bureaucratic reform.
You may fairly ask what three apparently unique organizations—the CIA, A&M, and Defense—have in common and what lessons they offer for leaders at all levels of government and in business as well. Let me suggest just a few examples. While everything I did at the CIA was supposedly secret, everything at the university was public, and Defense was a mix, in reality I had no secrets from any of my overseers—the White House, the governor’s mansion, Congress, the state capitol. And between aggressive media and leaks, I had few secrets from the public either. I had to do much of my business at all three in the public eye. This feature is common to virtually all public-sector bureaucracies. The influence of elected officials on Pentagon programs and funding was far more prevalent and political than at either the CIA or A&M, but even at the latter two every dollar the institution spent had to be approved by elected officials, who were not shy about making clear their priorities and preferences. The role of politicians in the everyday life of any public organization is significant; it’s just that their influence is applied differently depending upon the agency or department.
Also, at the CIA and Defense I supposedly could tell people what to do, whereas persuasion was my only recourse at A&M. However, while I could give orders at the CIA and the Pentagon, no successful leader of either ever did so; on the big issues, like the budget, the list is long of directors and secretaries whose ambitious plans crashed and burned because they failed to consult and persuade the intelligence professionals and the uniformed military to go along with their plans. In sum, when it comes to the fundamentals, these three organizations have much in common.
Similar traits can be found in most other institutions. I entered government nearly fifty years ago and, working for eight presidents, had the opportunity to observe the federal government at close hand—including many departments and agencies not associated with national security. As president of Texas A&M, I had a ringside seat to watch how state government and bureaucracies operate. And over the last twenty years, I have served on the board of directors of ten companies, where I had ample opportunity to observe the challenges of bureaucratic bloat, turf protection, empire building, and resistance to change facing their CEOs. And now I am national president of the Boy Scouts of America, which, like any big, century-old organization, has its own bureaucratic problems. Despite vastly different roles and missions, all these institutions have characteristics—and challenges—in common.
Few leaders will ever run the CIA, the U.S. military, or a huge university (or, fortunately for most, deal with Congress). Even so, I will make clear in these pages how the lessons I learned in those institutions are broadly applicable for, and useful to, leaders in nearly all bureaucracies. In external appearance, people are infinitely diverse, yet beneath the skin our anatomy and the way the body works are pretty much the same. So it is with bureaucracies. Each shares a lot of DNA with its kin, even distant cousins. You will see that despite the vast variety of bureaucracies in both the public and the private sectors, their cultures, organizational structures, and both internal and outside influences on their operations and behavior are remarkably similar. And thus the strategies and techniques for changing them—reforming them—are remarkably similar.
In the pages to come, I will dwell often on my experiences in government. Mainly, that is a manifestation of my belief that they offer considerable insight into what works well or badly. Partly, though, I hope that recounting those experiences will provide—as a bonus, if you will—information about our government that is worth the reader knowing as a citizen.
Despite the many frustrations and very real shortcomings associated with government, I believe Americans have, at every level, the most dedicated, capable, and honest public servants anywhere. In my long career in government, I saw in U.S. political appointees and career civil servants, university faculty and staff, men and women in uniform, and intelligence officers in mufti—public officials all—an extraordinary number of people of the highest quality serving with steadfast integrity and love of this country and what it stands for. They want to be proud of the organizations they work for; they want the admiration and esteem of the citizens they serve. They, too, are often frustrated by the shortcomings of their institutions.
So, what gets in the way of reform? Why is reform of public institutions particularly difficult?
For openers, virtually all public bureaucracies report directly or indirectly to elected officials, whether Congress, state legislatures, presidents, governors, mayors, or city and county governing boards. Their political interests (getting reelected usually foremost among them) are often in direct conflict with efforts to streamline or reform the institutions they oversee. For example, despite all the congressional rhetoric about waste and inefficiency in the Department of Defense, any effort to cut unneeded programs or facilities (and the related jobs) in members’ home districts or states invariably provokes howls of outrage and adamant opposition. Despite congressional demands for greater integration of American intelligence agencies, members deny intelligence executives (and the president) the authority to actually make that happen. At the same time state legislators rail against tuition increases at public universities, they slash state funding for those same institutions—and continue to impose inefficient state bureaucratic procedures that waste taxpayer (and student) dollars and inhibit cost cutting at those same universities. They don’t want to relinquish political control even as state funding levels plummet to 10–20 percent of operating budgets. In short, politics—both local and national—is a significant obstacle to reform and adaptive change.
But it’s not just politics that is the problem. Elective bodies with oversight responsibilities also are unreliable, unpredictable, and even irresponsible when it comes to the lifeblood of public institutions—funding. How can any organization do long-range planning when it...
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