A call for government at all levels to modernize and adapt to face upcoming threats and challenges.
When Hurricane Katrina leveled the Gulf Coast, it exposed the myriad weaknesses of the American government’s emergency preparedness. Kettl (Political Science/Univ. of Pennsylvania; System Under Stress: Homeland Security and American Politics, 2004, etc.) uses that disaster and the end-of-life care that his mother in-law received through Medicare and Medicaid to argue for a wholesale rethinking of the way federal, state and local governments deliver services. If this sounds a little dry and dull, well, it is; much of the narrative reads like a textbook for graduate students in public policy. Still, Kettl identifies a critical issue: Government is very good at delivering regular service (think garbage collection) but not so good when dealing with the unexpected (Katrina and 9/11). As opposed to “the vending-machine model” that works just fine in creating standard procedures to deal with repeated problems like garbage, the author argues that disasters require multi-agency efforts and public-private partnerships. In the century since the progressive movement first institutionalized the bureaucratic model of government, Kettl posits, citizens’ demand for more and better services have moved much of the work meeting people’s needs into the hands of private contractors. He has no ideological problem with this, and indeed makes a fairly strong case for the private sector’s role continuing to grow, but argues that the government must take a more active role in leveraging private stakeholders. It’s not exactly an earth-shatteringly new idea, but Kettl’s call for government to begin drastically rethinking how it does business could not come at a more critical hour.
Every officeholder should read this well-reasoned policy analysis, but general readers can take a pass.