So far, half the job done.
To complete it Biden needs a highly effective Government Performance Management System without delay.
What a world of a difference in the entire conduct of the inauguration ceremony, the decent and measured speech of Biden, the thoughtful and classy poem by Amanda Gorman, and in the deep prayers spoken at the inauguration in comparison to the swampy culture of lies and indecencies of the Trump years which increasingly threatened to devour the US. What a relief not only in Washington, but around the world. In a time when democracy globally is under extreme strain, the health of the leading democracy in the world is of crucial importance for human freedom and dignity.
Nobody except Biden could have ousted Trump, state many voices in Washington. So, must we consider Biden the savior of US and perhaps of global democracy?
One thing is undeniable: We owe the greatest admiration and respect to Joe Biden who at 78 years takes on the gigantic challenges the US and the world are presently facing.
Yet, by ousting Trump the job of saving US democracy is only half done. Biden and his excellent team face an extremely difficult mix of policy tasks from overcoming the pandemic, getting the economy back on track, creating jobs and an economically more balanced nation with equal chances for everyone and fighting racism. Furthermore, they only have around two to three years – even less, if one takes the mid-term elections in two years into account – to unify the nation and to stabilize democracy to ensure that a populist politician like Trump will not be elected again. How can Biden achieve success in handling this wide array of extremely difficult and urgent policy tasks?
Practically all democratic leaders in the world believe that running a government optimally is a matter of personal judgement, be it their own or the advisers around them. Yet, if Biden wants to succeed, it is crucial that he and his associates do not fall into this trap. Prevailing over all these challenges in the short time available is only possible with a government system of the highest degree of effectiveness and efficiency. To get it Biden needs a government performance management system which itself operates extremely effectively.
This idea is not new. Ten years ago, the Obama administration in fact already recognized the need for government performance management to make government as effective as possible. It appeared to be a frontrunner among global governments on the matter. But a quick look shows that the approach the Obama administration pursued was inadequate. A presentation from the year 2011 by Shelley H. Metzenbaum, from the Obama administration, and A. Alfred Taubman from the Brookings Institution, lists the three “key elements” of its government performance management concept:
a) Leaders set clear, ambitious, outcome-focused goals for a limited number of priorities,
b) Agencies measure, analyze, and communicate performance information to drive progress on their priorities,
c) Leaders frequently review progress on their priority goals.
These key elements appear fuzzy. What is the “limited number of priorities” supposed to be and of which benefit are “frequent” reviews of progress on priority goals? The approach to performance management by the Obama government evidently misses out completely on a systemically indispensable first step for making any system effective, the need to confirm and agree on its exact goals.
As Hélène Landemore from Yale University writes in her book “Democratic Reason”, the fundamental key to optimal policy making is optimal deliberation, the inclusion of all know-how available in society and the world on a policy problem. It is also the indispensable prerequisite for ensuring effective government performance management. The fuzziness of the approach to performance management by the Obama administration shows that the first step required in creating an effective government performance system through such public consultation is the identification of a suitable methodology.
One concrete suggestion at this point will be: For Biden and his team to ensure the success of the government in unifying US society and stabilizing US democracy and in coping with all the other difficult policy issues it is facing, they must base their approach to making government work on sound systemic thinking. The methodology requires the thorough verification of the precise goals and purposes of the democratic policy making system and of each process in the system. It then entails the exact determination of each and every factor affecting the achievement of the goals identified and ensuring that these factors are in place. If the Biden government does not work diligently through these steps in making government effective, it will not operate as effectively as it must.
While the combined experience of the Biden team is a great asset, given that many of its members were in government, when the increasing discontent with the political system allowed Trump to get into office, it also entails the risk for government to continue exactly as before. “How do we do government?” “What must we improve?” In the light of what is at stake for the Biden government and the nation, a structured independent assessment of the overall quality of the policy making process which investigates these questions appears indispensable.
In the current situation it would be a dangerous mistake for the government to believe that it will achieve the critical goal of stabilizing US democracy simply by solid and effective policy making in the wide array of areas which it is facing. Given the complexity of the tasks, chances are that government success over the next two years or so will not be far-reaching enough to convince the great majority of the citizens of the merits of a decent democratic government.
Effective systemic government performance management will highlight that the goal of stabilizing US democracy rather must be treated as a distinct policy area on its own. It will emphasize that, next to aiming to deliver on the expectations of the people in such areas as jobs, healthcare, and equal rights, the Biden government must involve the people in the process of policy making so they see how it works and can trust in it. The aim of making democracy more resilient at the same time calls for the implementation of a high quality citizenship education program which conveys to the people what a functioning democracy needs to look like, what the preconditions for effective democracy are, what the personal and professional requirements concerning its leaders must be, and, finally, how the people themselves can engage with their government in a constructive fashion to ensure that their concerns are being heard and taken into account.
Biden will be able to handle the extremely difficult combination of challenges he is facing in the narrow timeframe available only with a government of the highest degree of effectiveness and efficiency conceivable. To ensure his government operates at such level of quality he must open it for new thinking on how to run government effectively. He and his team must install an effective government performance management system without delay.