The Big Idea

The Hackocracy

Why our MBA president can’t manage the government.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

Recent personnel changes under Joshua Bolten, the new White House chief of staff, have already begun to follow a pattern. An anonymous official speaking for the president indicates that the time has come for a senior head to roll—be it that of Scott McClellan (ushered out last month as White House press secretary), John Snow (still clinging to his job at the Treasury Department), or—in the drama that has been played out over the last several days—Porter Goss at the CIA. The unnamed senior administration official avers that we need someone competent and qualified in this important position, as if this novel idea had just occurred to the president and his advisers.

Perhaps Bush is to be commended, even at this late stage, for attempting to place more capable people in positions of authority in his administration. But for a presidency that has already entered its graveyard spiral, this human-resources initiative comes too late. Bolten’s belated focus on better leadership merely points up what a travesty Bush’s vaunted management style has been. Entirely aside from debates over his policy and spending choices, the first president with an MBA has proved inept as the federal government’s CEO.

In Bush’s sixth year, the executive branch resembles a smoldering landscape after battle. The staffs of various agencies and departments have been routed by a combination of political interference, neglect, and failed leadership. The CIA is a prime example of how Bush has botched it. Despite its failure to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks, the agency was populated with a corps of able spies and analysts, some of whom actually got the story about the absence of both Saddam’s WMD and links to al-Qaida correct before the Iraq invasion. After silencing and ignoring these professionals, Bush sent a loyalist from Congress to purge the survivors. Porter Goss brought his own flunkies from Capitol Hill to help him squelch leaks and improve the agency’s PR. In just a year and a half, the former congressman nearly completed the work of demoralizing the agency and driving out a generation of senior talent. Now the Bushies want to repair the damage without owning up to their role in causing it.

This is by no means an isolated failure. New agencies that Bush has launched, from the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiativesto the Department of Homeland Security, have failed to find their footing, to put it charitably, primarily because Bush has not structured them properly, found competent leadership, or otherwise followed through on his plans. (In a 2005 survey, employees ranked the newly formed DHS second-to-last among the large federal agencies as a place to work.) While there is little in the way of longitudinal data that can prove a decline under Bush, anecdotal evidence in the Washington Post every day points to declining morale and an exodus of top people from various departments. At some agencies, performance has deteriorated to an extent that it will take decades to restore their capability.

Bush is often charged with undermining federal workers by politicizing what are supposed to be objective and analytic functions. He has done this, among other places, at the CIA, the FDA, and NASA, where a 24-year-old college dropout was until recently in a position to order senior officials to make references to the Big Bang compatible with the possibility of “intelligent design.” Politics per se, however, is not the enemy of effective public-sector management. Those presidents who have run the federal government most effectively—I would cite FDR, JFK, and Clinton—have balanced their policy wonks with capable hacks while cultivating youthful idealism and more positive feelings about public service. Politics, more than money, is what creates accountability and motivates performance in the executive branch. But for the government to work, the hacks have to be fundamentally competent. Former FEMA Director James Lee Witt was a Clinton buddy from Arkansas, just as Michael Brown was a Bush crony. But unlike Heckuvajob Brownie, Witt knew how to run the agency in a way that would make his boss look good to voters. 

Bush’s stated management model—appointing good people, delegating authority to them, and holding them accountable for results—reflects some common-sense notions he picked up at Harvard Business School. His actual management practice, however, has not followed that model. In practice, Bush tends to appoint mediocre people he trusts to be loyal, delegates hardly any decision-making power to anyone beyond a few top aides, and seldom holds anyone accountable. These failures are related. If you don’t give people real authority, you can’t reasonably hold them responsible for what follows. What has grown up around the president as a result is not an effective political machine, but a stultifying imperial court, a hackocracy dominated by sycophants, cronies, and yes men.

Under Bush’s actual management system, decision-making is concentrated in the White House political office, with Cabinet secretaries and the heads of agencies functioning as figureheads and mouthpieces. That this disempowers and often humiliates nominally top officials has not been lost on potential recruits, which is why Bush has so far been unable to persuade a top Wall Street executive to replace John Snow as treasury secretary. On Meet the Press, I recently saw one of the administration’s interchangeable, largely unknown senior officials defending Bush’s inconsistent position on high gas prices. Even Tim Russert, the program’s hard-hitting inquisitor, seemed to take pity on this poor shill, recognizing that his role was to be a piñata for a policy he obviously had no control over. Only after some time did it dawn on me that the guest was in fact Bush’s energy secretary, Samuel Bodman. I had never seen him before.

Both liberals and conservatives sometimes profess surprise that Bush, who spits out the term “bureaucrat” with as much scorn as Ronald Reagan or Newt Gingrich did, has increased government spending as a share of the U.S. economy faster than any president since Roosevelt. In fact, Bush has chosen what may be the far more effective strategy for fighting big government. Frontal attacks of the past have failed, but Bush’s sabotage seems to be hitting its mark.