Lectern

By Steve Kelman

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Osama bin Laden and Public Service Recognition Week

There are doubtless few outside the Beltway — and relatively few other than government employees — who are aware that this week (May 1-7) is Public Service Recognition Week, when we pause to think about the generally unheralded and unappreciated contributions of those who work for the government.

And of the small number who are aware of it, how many have thought about the fact that the recent success in the decade-long pursuit of Osama bin Laden occurred on the first day of this annual event?

The coincidence is significant because, of course, the Navy Seals and the other uniformed and civilian military and intelligence employees who accomplished that task are, in fact, government employees. But I suspect few Americans think of these people as govies.

Indeed, it often seems as if any time the government is involved in something seen as admirable or heroic, many people separate those doing the good deeds from the mental category of "government" — as if, by definition, government can't do good stuff. Recall the perhaps apocryphal stories of seniors telling politicians to "keep the government's hands off my Medicare."

I once thought of the idea of doing a poll outside a national park asking visitors whether they supported putting national parks under government control, on the assumption that many don't know they are under government control already.

The attitude that the government can't do good work is unfortunate and even pathological, but in the spirit of turning lemons into lemonade, I have been reflecting on why the military is often able to avoid the popular distaste attached to other government organizations.

First, the military services are able to motivate employees by appealing to their strong patriotism and a sense of a larger purpose. Certainly, military organizations are seen has having a more attractive or at least exciting mission — though a mission involving killing isn't necessarily one that is unambiguously attractive, to put it mildly. But I often think that Frito-Lay does a better job than many government organizations of fostering their employees’ sense of the importance of their mission to society, which is a real shame.

Second, military organizations have a strong commitment to training. Perhaps it is unfair to hold nonmilitary organizations to the same standard, given that in peacetime much of the military's job is to train.

And third, the military makes significant use of performance measurement. Military measures aren't perfect, to be sure, but I am impressed by how natural the basic concept is to most of the military participants when I teach performance measurement in executive education at the Kennedy School.

Let's take this week to remind people that it was government employees who hunted down Osama bin Laden. And, for those of us who are in the government outside the military, let's take this week to ask ourselves how our organizations can do a better job at their missions and make it impossible for reasonable people to buy into the stereotype that identifies government with incompetence.

Posted on May 04, 2011 at 7:27 PM


Reader Comments

Thu, May 5, 2011 Gorgonzola

What's arguably best about the success this week: the persistence after obvious (and hidden) failures, public (and nonpublic) criticism, and probably a whole lot of learning along the way. It is no secret that the analytical methods (in the CTC and CIA) have been fouled by too much data/too many cooks/not enough accountability (sorry, but the WH and IC admit this), ingrained verticalism, and some lapses into dithering and bungling, as organizations sometimes do. Somehow, the IC finally got it together. There was a lot of trial-and-error, but that's how the intel game is often played. Unfortunately, some of the trials were organizational, not analytical. As for the SEALs and their support, they have been doing this kind of mission for years, if not with the stakes this high. You gotta admire their part of it, compared with the office-bound analytical and much of the collection work. The SEALs' performance was certainly more exacting, a state that the analysts hardly ever have to endure. They can roll failures forward ("we're still looking"), but not the SEALs in this kind of work. If only we could have done this mission, say, 3-5 years ago, and that's what many Americans expected (even Bush). Why we couldn't is the riddle riveting us all.

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