Editorial Board

Jared Kushner Versus the Bureaucracy

Can the president’s son-in-law succeed where decades of reformers have failed? Color us skeptical.

Its harder than you think.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Pool

It’s been a preoccupation of rulers since Hammurabi: How do you make the bureaucrats behave? For at least three decades, the prevailing answer of governments the world over has been to try to bring some corporate know-how and efficiency to bear on bloated public services. President Donald Trump is about to learn just why that’s so hard.

The White House announced this week that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a top adviser, will oversee an initiative called the Office of American Innovation. The idea is to create “a SWAT team of strategic consultants” who can get the government to run more like “a great American company.”

That’s a laudable impulse. It’s also nearly impossible to realize. Almost all governments try this kind of thing, and almost all fail. Trump’s predecessors dating back at least to Harry Truman have placed their own imprint on the idea -- empowering task forces and technocrats, czars and commissars -- without notable success in taming the federal bureaucracy. Kushner would be wise to consider why, and to temper his expectations accordingly.

One problem is that great American companies aren’t great simply by virtue of their management. They’re also subject to the discipline of free markets. Replicating that discipline administratively -- through benchmarks, check lists, efficiency metrics -- is an imperfect science, often easily gamed. As Max Weber, the great scholar of bureaucracies, put it: “Errors in official statistics do not have direct economic consequences for the responsible official, but miscalculations in a capitalist enterprise are paid for by losses, perhaps by its existence.”

A further difficulty is cultural. Where companies reward risk-taking and creativity, administrators must act soberly and predictably. Public employees aren’t easily fired (or hired). Their interest is in gathering more powers to themselves, not in streamlining. And shaking things up can be counterproductive when the best and brightest have other options: The U.S. government’s chronic inability to lure competent technology workers is a case in point.

Overcoming inefficiency is also harder than would-be reformers typically imagine. It often requires expert knowledge of arcane subject areas, and a commitment spanning years. In many cases, inefficiency is mandated by law or regulation. Authorities overlap. Incentives conflict. Congress has its own purposes. For such disputes, a SWAT team really isn’t really the thing.

Given all this, Kushner shouldn’t be expected to accomplish all that much in his new role. His ambition to modernize government technology is sound. More transparency and efficiency would be welcome. In some cases (education, say), harnessing the power of competition could help. In others (the TSA comes to mind), privatizing services may make sense. But no one should expect a federal government suddenly humming with new productivity.

“The bureaucracy,” Karl Marx wrote, “is a circle from which no one can escape.” That goes for presidents as much as for the public -- probably more so.

    --Editors: Timothy Lavin, Michael Newman.

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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