What Americans Still Want from Reform: An April Update with Professor Paul C. Light
April 15, 2021
The John Brademas Center hosted a conversation with Paul C. Light focused on his recent work in government reform. He was joined by a distinguished group that included Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, Joe Davidson, columnist for The Washington Post, E.J. Dionne, columnist for The Washington Post, and Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, nonresident senior fellow at The Brookings Institution. The conversation was moderated by John Hudak, Deputy Director of the Center for Effective Public Management.
Even as recent polling shows strong public support for Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion “spend-whatever-it-takes-without-delay” stimulus package, Americans remain deeply divided over his broader agenda for government. Although President Biden may be the big-spending president many Americans want, Paul Light's new research shows that Americans also want Biden to the government reformer that will make programs and agencies work. Biden’s early reversals of Donald Trump’s anti-government orders will help rebuild civil service morale and restore momentum on big-ticket programs to end the pandemic and restart the economy, but he will also need bureaucratic reforms to avoid the bureaucratic breakdowns that have plagued recent presidencies.
After updating his pre-election forecast on government reform, Light argues that President Biden should focus broadly on the federal government’s rising vulnerability to failure. The breakdown curve has accelerated with the steady erosion of government capacity, the failure to modernize aging bureaucracies, and the deafening “quiet crisis” of student disinterest in government careers that former Federal Reserve Board chairman Paul A. Volcker fought to remedy for the last thirty years of his life.
Light also argues that Biden’s first challenge is to attack the bloated hierarchies that Trump left behind. Much as Trump complained about all the useless “people over people over people” he would have to appoint, he never met a new layer he could not embrace. Biden should show him just how flat the federal bureaucracy can go by winnowing the 83 layers at the very top of government and while resisting the temptation to fill all 4,000 political positions that are now available for presidential action.
The Washington Post
A warning to Biden: The number of federal government breakdowns has been accelerating, and there are bound to be more on his watch
John Hudak, Deputy Director, Center for Effective Public Management; senior fellow, Governance Studies, Brookings Institution
John Hudak is deputy director of the Center for Effective Public Management and a senior fellow in Governance Studies. His research examines questions of presidential power in the contexts of administration, personnel, and public policy. Additionally, he focuses on campaigns and elections, legislative-executive interaction, and state and federal marijuana policy.
John’s 2016 book, Marijuana: A Short History, offers a unique, up-to-date profile of how cannabis emerged from the shadows of counterculture and illegality to become a serious, even mainstream, public policy issue and source of legal revenue for both businesses and governments. In it, he describes why attitudes and policy have changed, and what those changes mean for marijuana's future place in society.
His 2014 Presidential Pork: White House Influence over the Distribution of Federal Grants demonstrates that pork-barrel politics occurs beyond the halls of Congress. Presidents capitalize on their discretionary funding authority to target federal dollars to swing states in advance of presidential elections. His other work explores how agency staffing, expertise, and institutional structure facilitate or hinder presidential power and influence. This research explores the balance between political control and bureaucratic expertise in the delivery of public policy.
John’s work has been recognized for its quality and contribution by the Midwest Political Science Association and the American Political Science Association’s Presidency Research Group. His work has been supported by institutions including the National Science Foundation.
Prior to joining Brookings, John served as the program director and as a graduate fellow at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. He holds a B.A. in political science and economics from the University of Connecticut and an M.A. and Ph.D. in political science from Vanderbilt University.
Paul C. Light, Paulette Goddard Professor of Public Service, NYU Wagner
Dr. Paul C. Light is NYU Wagner's Paulette Goddard Professor of Public Service and founding principal investigator of the Global Center for Public Service, Before joining NYU, Dr. Light served as the Douglas Dillon Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, founding director of its Center for Public Service, and vice president and director of the Governmental Studies Program. He has served previously as director of the Public Policy Program at the Pew Charitable Trusts and associate dean and professor of public affairs at the University of Minnesota's Hubert Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.
Light is the author of 25 books, including works on social entrepreneurship, the nonprofit sector, federal government reform, public service, and the baby boom. His most recent book is The Government-Industrial Complex: Tracking the True Size of Government, 1984-2019 (Oxford University Press, 2019), Government by Investigation: Presidents, Congress, and the Search for Answers, 1945-2012 (Brookings Institution Press, 2014). His award-winning books include The President's Agenda: Domestic Policy Choice from Kennedy to Clinton (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982, 1998), Thickening Government: Federal Hierarchy and the Diffusion of Accountability (Brookings Institution Press, 1995), The Tides of Reform: Making Government Work, 1945-1995 (Brookings Institution Press, 1997), and A Government Ill Executed: The Decline of the Federal Service and How to Reverse It (Harvard University Press, 2008). A Government Ill Executed received the American Political Science Association's Herbert Simon Award in 2008 as the most important book on public administration in the preceding three-to-five years upon publication. Light's work earned the American Political Science Association's John Gauss Award in 2015 for exemplary career service in political science and public administration. Light is also a co-author of an American government textbook, Government by the People. His research interests include: bureaucracy, civil service, Congress, entitlement programs, the executive branch, government reform, nonprofit effectiveness, organizational change, and the political appointment process.
Danielle Brian, executive director, Project On Government Oversight
Danielle Brian is executive director of the Project On Government Oversight, a nonpartisan independent watchdog that investigates corruption, misconduct and conflicts of interest in the federal government. A South Florida native and National FOIA Hall of Fame member, Brian has testified before Congress more than 40 times in the 27 years she's been leading the organization, which goes by the memorable acronym POGO. She returned to the group and took the reins in 1993 after interning there a decade earlier. Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
@POGOBlog is a nonpartisan watchdog that fights to fix the federal government. We investigate corruption, abuse of power and when the government silences whistleblowers. We champion reforms to achieve a more effective, ethical and accountable federal government that safeguards constitutional principles.
Joe Davidson, Washington, D.C. Columnist focusing on federal government issues, The Washington Post
Joe Davidson writes the Federal Insider, formerly the Federal Diary, a Washington Post column on the federal government. For 13 years he was a Washington and foreign correspondent with the Wall Street Journal. Before joining The Post as an assistant city editor in 2005, he was an editor with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. He is a founding board member of the National Association of Black Journalists and is in its Hall of Fame.
At The Wall Street Journal, Davidson covered a broad range of domestic issues and agencies, including health, education and the Justice Department. He also covered presidential and state political campaigns. As a foreign correspondent, he covered South Africa during apartheid, before and after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and his election as president of the “new” South Africa.
Davidson was in the charter class of Ethics Fellows at the Poynter Institute, where he also has been a visiting faculty member. He has conducted professional coaching seminars at the Gannett News Service, the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism in Johannesburg and the University of Maryland. For many years he was an adjunct professor at Temple and Howard universities.
Davidson's career began in his home town at the Detroit News. He moved to Philadelphia in 1974 to join the Bulletin, where he was city hall bureau chief. He also reported on city hall for the Philadelphia Inquirer and was managing editor of the National Leader, a national black weekly. He moved to Washington to join the Journal in 1984.
Previously, he was a regular commentator on NPR’s "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered." He has been a political columnist for BET.com, a contributing editor to Emerge magazine and has written for the Nation, Mother Jones, the Los Angeles Times and the Christian Science Monitor. Among his numerous television appearances are those on CNN, MSNBC, PBS and BET. He is past president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists, a two-time Pulitzer juror and the recipient of numerous awards.
E.J. Dionne Jr., Washington, D.C. Columnist covering national politics, The Washington Post
E.J. Dionne writes about politics in a twice-weekly column for The Washington Post. He is also a government professor at Georgetown University, a visiting professor at Harvard University, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and a frequent commentator on politics for National Public Radio and MSNBC. His book “Code Red: How Progressives and Moderates Can Unite to Save Our Country” was published by St. Martin’s Press in February.
Before joining The Post in 1990 as a political reporter, Dionne spent 14 years at the New York Times, where he covered politics and reported from Albany, Washington, Paris, Rome and Beirut. His coverage of the Vatican was described by the Los Angeles Times as the best in two decades. In 2014-2015, Dionne was the vice president of the American Political Science Association. He is the author of seven books. His most recent are “One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet Deported” (co-authored with Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann, 2017) and "Why the Right Went Wrong: Conservatism – From Goldwater to the Tea Party and Beyond" (2016). Dionne is the editor of seven additional volumes, including “We Are the Change We Seek: The Speeches of Barack Obama” (2017), co-edited with MSNBC’s Joy-Ann Reid, and “What’s God Got to Do with the American Experiment” (2000), co-edited with John J. DiIulio. He grew up in Fall River, Mass., attended Harvard College and was a Rhodes Scholar at Balliol College, Oxford. He lives in Bethesda, Md., with his wife, Mary Boyle. They have three children, James, Julia and Margot.
Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, nonresident senior fellow with Governance Studies, The Brookings Institution
Kathryn Dunn Tenpas is a nonresident senior fellow with Governance Studies at The Brookings Institution. She also serves as a senior fellow at the Miller Center, senior research director at the White House Transition Project, fellow at the Center for Presidential Transition, and fellow and secretary of the Governance Institute.
Dr. Tenpas’ research addresses the intersection between the presidency and politics, including presidential personnel and staff structure, presidential appointments, reelection campaigns, transitions, and trends in presidential travel and polling expenses. Her work on White House staffing examines the evolution as well as specific entities like the Office of Political Affairs, the Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, the White House Counsel’s Office and the Staff Secretary. In addition, she has studied White House staff turnover extensively, and created a staff tracker at the Brookings Institution that reached over 750,000 page views in its three-year run, making it one of the highest performing pages at Brookings.
Dr. Tenpas has authored the book Presidents as Candidates: Inside the White House for the Presidential Campaign, and published over sixty articles, book chapters, blog posts, op-eds and papers on a variety of presidency-related topics. Her peer-reviewed articles have been published in the Journal of Politics, Political Science Quarterly, Public Opinion Quarterly and Presidential Studies Quarterly. Recent publications include, a 2018 Presidential Studies Quarterly article, “White House Staff Turnover in year One of the Trump Administration,” and the creation of an appointments tracker for the Biden administration that indicates pace and race/ethnicity of Senate-confirmed nominees, and continued study of White House staffing and trends in turnover rates.
Her insights on the presidency have been quoted in major newspapers like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and USA Today. She has appeared on numerous television and radio outlets (e.g., NPR, Marketplace, CNN, CNBC) in the United States and abroad.
She also served two terms on the Board of the American Political Science Association’s Presidency Research Group, a national organization for presidency scholars, and has been an active participant in the Miller Center Presidential Oral History Program.
Dr. Tenpas’ academic positions include her role as the Director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Washington Semester Program, as a Senior Fellow at the Weidenbaum Center at Washington University in St. Louis, and an Associate Professorship in the Department of Government and International Affairs at the University of South Florida. While there, she won an undergraduate teaching award, directed the Political Science Honors Program and the Washington, D.C. internship program. From 1992-1993, she was a guest scholar with Leiden University in the Netherlands.
Taylor Hvidsten is a junior at NYU majoring in Political Science and minoring in Psychology and Spanish. She is from New Prague, Minnesota. This summer she will be interning at The John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. She is participating in the Brademas Center's Internship Program.