The U.S. Government Cannot Be Run Like a Business
Harvard Business Review online written by Henry Mintzberg
Donald Trump ran his campaign with the promise to manage the U.S. government like a business. In fact, he just announced that his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, will head up a “SWAT team” dedicated to making this happen.
Trump assumes, as do many Americans, that the country’s major problem is too much government. In my view, the United States is not suffering from too much government so much as from too much business all over the government. This president came into office to challenge “the establishment,” only to ensconce the country’s powerful business establishment in his cabinet, at the expense of Washington’s weaker political establishment.
Should government even be run like a business, let alone by businesspeople? No more than business should be run like a government by civil servants. Each in its own place, thank you. Governments experience all kinds of pressures that cannot be imagined in many enterprises, especially the entrepreneurial kind run by Trump.
Consider this: Business has a convenient bottom line, called “profit,” which can readily be measured. What is the bottom line for terrorism: The number of countries on a list, or of immigrants deported, or of walls built? How about the number of attacks that don’t happen? Many activities are in the public sector precisely because their intricate results are difficult to measure.
Running government like a business has been tried again and again, only to fail again and again. In the 1960s, Robert McNamara introduced the Planning-Programming-Budgeting System as a “one-best-way,” businesslike approach to government. The obsessive measuring led to the infamous body counts of the Vietnam War. Later came new public management, a 1980s euphemism for old corporate managing: Isolate activities, put a manager in charge of each one, and hold them responsible for the measurable results. That might work for the state lottery, but how about foreign relations or education, let alone, dare I say, health care? People in government tell me that new public management is still promoted, though now it might better be called “old public management.”