You may have seen the video of President Trump’s cabinet meeting. Democrats are atwitter over what they saw as obsequious comments of cabinet members directed at an egotistical president. Republicans are atwitter over what they saw as sincere comments of cabinet members directed at a great leader.
Both sides missed the larger point: that no matter who sits around the table at cabinet meetings, and no matter who is president, the federal government has become so large, so complex, so centralized, so bureaucratic, so costly, so caught up in minutia, and so involved in the affairs of citizens, cities, states, and other countries, that it is unmanageable.
I’ve lost count but believe that there are now 15 cabinet positions, versus the four or so in the early decades of the nation.
Whatever the exact number of positions, the staged photos of cabinet meetings make it obvious that there are too many government departments. Crammed around a conference table and stuffed into lookalike suits, there are too many cabinet heads in charge of too many functions and too many employees for cabinet meetings to ever be effective, which means that the government as a whole cannot be effective. There is no way for the participants to thoroughly discuss issues, to reach consensus on policy initiatives so that everyone is on board, to resolve conflicts and disagreements between each other and their departments, and to make sure that all the departments are cooperating with each other and working as a team toward common goals.
In corporate lingo, the problem is made worse by the fact that the government is organized into very tall silos, or departments, each with its own hierarchy, budget, police force, fleet of limousines, marble headquarters, constituencies, conflicting legislative mandates, and highly politicized congressional oversight committees and subcommittees. The silos keep the departments from working well horizontally; that is, across departments, as was seen in the lack of communication between departments that resulted in the 9/11 terrorists not being stopped beforehand.
The problem is worsened still yet by the nature of government bureaucracies (aka fiefdoms), where poor performance is tolerated, where the incentives are to increase budgets and staffing instead of decrease them, and where department heads come and go with each passing administration.
The silos and lack of coordination make it virtually impossible to even know the extent and cost of various programs. Take social-welfare programs. By one estimate, there are nearly one hundred welfare programs spread across several departments. A president and members of Congress can spout pabulum about welfare reform, but without bringing together all of the affected department heads and their minions to discuss, debate, and plan how all of the pieces should come together, reform will be disjointed, ineffectual, and temporary.
The Department of Agriculture is one of the departments involved with welfare; specifically, the food stamp program. The department’s headquarters building is massive. Sitting right off the Capitol Mall and across from the Holocaust Museum, it is three-stories high, three blocks long, and a block wide. Guard posts encircle the building and are manned by armed guards, as if there is something of value inside. The department also has scores of satellite offices in metro D.C. and across the nation. Yet little of the department’s “work” has to do with the growing of food. Instead, most of it has to do with subsidies, freebies, and tariffs.
Someday a smart entrepreneur will start a tour business in D.C. that takes tourists around to see how their money is wasted. The Agriculture building would be a prime attraction. The tour guide could point out the black Suburban limos with antennas sticking out of the roof that are parked in front of the building for the department’s bigwigs and their police escorts. Of course it is doubtful that such a tour business would ever be granted a tour license.
If you are as cursed as I am in terms of knowing how organizations really function, you couldn’t sleep at night, given that the U.S. government has armies and nuclear weapons. In view of the dysfunction in the imperial city, it’s amazing that we haven’t started a world war or accidentally blown up the world.
My curse stems from spending a career helping organizations of all sizes and types deal with their dysfunction, ranging from public and private organizations of a few hundred employees to tens of thousands of employees. I can only imagine the degree of dysfunction in an organization of nearly three million employees.
In almost all cases, dysfunction at the bottom of any organization—whether manifested in poor customer service, or shoddy workmanship, or wasted money, or poor teamwork between departments—can be traced back to dysfunction on the executive team, and specifically, to terrible team meetings in which issues aren’t addressed, priorities established, and detailed plans developed.
I used a metaphor of gears to get the point across to executive teams. Imagine, I would say, ten connected gears stacked on top of each other, with the largest gear at the top, and with each succeeding gear being smaller than the one above, so that the last gear on the bottom is the tiniest of all. In this metaphor, the senior team is the biggest gear at the top, the employees who deal directly with customers are the smallest gear at the bottom, and the gears in between are the levels of management that come between the employees and the executive team. Because a small turn of the top gear results in the gear at the bottom spinning wildly, it is imperative that the executive team be very careful in operating smoothly, thoughtfully, and carefully.
It is obvious from photos of cabinet meetings that the top gear of government has become too big to operate smoothly, thoughtfully, and carefully. As a result, citizens are being spun around wildly, which explains why they are so nauseous over what goes on in Washington.