Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Execution Vs Policy

In his second term President Obama's Administration should do a better job of day to day administration in which some of his departments fell short.  But first some background.

When Snowstorm Nemo dumped two feet of snow in our town of Danbury CT on Feb. 9 we had a couple of pleasant surprises.  First, our local roads were quickly and efficiently cleared thanks to Mayor Mark Boughton's workforce and similarly our highways by state crews under Gov. Dannel Malloy.  Second, unlike in past storms we didn't suffer major and widespread power outages. This may be partly due to better preventive operations like cutting trees threatening overhead power lines.  Gov. Malloy replaced the power company's management in Oct. 2011 when 70% of the state's homes lost power for several days, and he pushed for better preparedness against future storms.

 The point is, both Republican Mayor Boughton and Democrat Gov. Malloy enjoy high approval ratings and support from the same set of voters among us.  It's not so much because of their policies as for their efficient execution and running a responsive day to day administration.  In a Democratic leaning Danbury I've seen Mayor Boughton win with two thirds of the vote over his Democratic opponent in the past three elections, and deservedly so. 

At a national level good execution was a big reason for President Clinton's success and popularity.  For example his administration transformed veterans hospitals (VHA) from "dangerous, dirty, scandal-ridden" institutions to ones delivering "the highest quality care in the country."  In general I just remember feeling that the branches of federal government though imperfect ran more smoothly and efficiently during his tenure.

President George W. Bush on the other hand (in Paul Krugman's words) had a reverse Midas touch - everything he touched turned into crud.  It wasn't just his wrong decision to invade Iraq, but the faulty planning and execution of the war and its aftermath that turned it into a costly debacle.  Who can forget the "Heck of a job, Brownie" handling of Hurricane Katrina?  Unlike Clinton, GWB tended to appoint cronies based on personal relationships and ideology rather than on ability, which compounded his lack of natural ability to govern effectively.  The financial crisis of 2008 had complex roots including policy failures by the Fed's Alan Greenspan and Clinton's Secretary of Treasury Robert Rubin's earlier deregulation leading to risky bank behavior.  But there was an execution aspect as well, like allowing Lehman Brothers to collapse like it did leading to a domino effect.  To be fair though, GWB made some amends by appointing William Gates as Secretary of Defense, and Ben Bernanke as Fed Chairman.

In India one of the most admired (and controversial) leaders is Narendra Modi, the long serving Chief Minister (equivalent to Governor in the US) of Gujarat state.  He is widely regarded as a Hindu zealot suspected of encouraging the 2002 anti-Muslim riots that killed 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus.  Yet it's his efficient and clean administration with a progressive outlook that has raised Gujarat's fortunes and made even secular minded voters look upon him favorably as a possible future Prime Minister of India.  In contrast, I agree with much of the philosophy and ideals of Congress Party's Sonia Gandhi with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. But the ineptitude and corruption pervading their administration has alienated even staunch supporters of their Party.  

People standing for elections and the voters deciding amongst them tend to set more store on policy declarations and the likeability factor ("whom would you more like to have a drink with").  Their ability to execute takes a back seat or at least isn't evaluated in depth.  That's fine for legislative roles since Senators and Congressmen are charged with setting policy and laying down laws, but not so much for Presidential and governor races.  After all, for elections to the "Executive" branch of government, shouldn't the ability to "execute" well be a crucial criteria? 

This brings me back to the Obama Administration whose score card in implementing laws and execution has been mixed.  President Obama seems more into speeches and broad ideas, without Bill Clinton's knack of keeping tabs on implementing laws, administrative efficiency and effectiveness.  (Obama fans may dispute this by pointing to his personal involvement in those drone kill lists, but I distinguish that one bit of micromanaging from general emphasis on administrative effectiveness.)  Obama's remoteness means that the performance of his departments depended on who he chose to head them. 

One reason I rooted for Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries was her better grasp of the issues (which also helps in administering well) and her being the other half of the Clinton team of 1992 - 2000.  Obama made her Secretary of State where the attack on an unprotected US mission in Benghazi is an exception to her overall sterling performance.  Obama also got Bin Laden of course, and did solidly in continuing the appointments of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. His other good choices in his first term were Leon Panetta for CIA and later Defense, and Arne Duncan for Education.  He did well in areas under national spotlight like restoring the effectiveness of FEMA and responding to Hurricane Sandy on the eve of his re-election.

In other departments his choices left something to be desired, and Obama so far hasn't matched Clinton's ability to spot and tighten under-performers whose actions are less in the  news.  While minor in themselves these add up to how his administration impacts the everyday lives of ordinary Americans.  Here are some examples including what I've seen and experienced at first hand:
  • FCC and the do-nothing Do Not Call registry.  George W. Bush did something right when in 2003 his administration started the Do Not Call registry to save us from those nuisance marketing calls. Getting on that list is easy and over three fourths of Americans have registered for it. The penalties of up to $11,000 and $16,000 per violation should be enough to deter offending marketers.  The problem is that the FTC and the FCC who are supposed to act on complaints of violations do so little about it.  Consumer complaints have poured in with 212,000 in April 2012 alone, but the enforcement penalties have been a measly $5.6 million to date in the most prominent of violations. I've personally filed scores of complaints after digging out the identities and contact information of the callers (no easy task as they know they're violating the DNC) and heard nothing back.  What's the use of having laws if the FTC as well as the FCC does so little to enforce them?  I see robo-callers and marketers increasingly emboldened and flouting the law, and get half a dozen of these calls on many days.  I'm glad FCC Chairman Jules Genachowski is leaving.  Now if only Obama can get his successor to better mind day to day enforcement in parallel with those "bigger" anti-trust and policy issues.
  • Homeland security and airport entry.  I marvel at the speed at which the hordes of incoming international passengers are processed at Mumbai and Delhi airports in "third world" India.  They have about 40 immigration counters open, and even with several planeloads arriving simultaneously the longest I've had to wait in the last half a dozen visits has been 40 minutes.  In Europe and the Middle East it's been much faster - never longer than 10 minutes.  In contrast, the last four times I've entered the US at JFK or Newark airports the wait has been at least an hour, even though the number of incoming passengers is a fraction of those in India.  The reason?  They seem to consistently have too few agents at the counters, with most of these closed. I've felt particularly bad for women with babies and young children who had to struggle through this as there is no separate quicker processing for them.  Surely the Homeland functionary sitting in Washington DC who oversees airport entry could have video feeds from the processing halls of all major airports to see these long lines.  It speaks poorly of Homeland Security Chief Janet Napolitano and her deputies who directly supervise this.  My complaints and suggestions in this regard have been met with stock responses from underlings of the very official at these airports who is responsible for such laxity.  
  • US Postal Services (USPS).  We have excellent mail carriers for our home, as is the staff at our local post office.  But here are some experiences pointing to management miscues.
    •  Our local post office no longer displays prices of standard products like first class mail, priority mail, express mail, international mail or passport processing.  True, you can find them at the automated kiosk or once you talk to a postal clerk but there's often a line for both of these.  So it wastes time when you cannot think and plan in advance while waiting in the line and slows customer processing from the post office's viewpoint.  The only rates I see are of overpriced stationery products like envelopes and boxes that you can buy for a third of the price at Staples or Office Depot.
    • Three years ago I went to our area's 24/7 automatic postal station after regular manned working hours to buy stamps for mailing some letters to India.  But the menu of choices on the kiosk screen did not include mailing to foreign destinations, nor dispense stamps for an amount I wanted to specify.  So I had to go back home, look up the rate information on the internet and use stamps at home before dropping off the letters.  The problem? A glitch in their software upgrade that may well have affected automated stations in many parts of the country.  This problem persisted for several weeks, if not months.
    • To lower costs a lot of USPS mail boxes have been removed all over the US in the past years, so they're typically a couple of miles apart in our Danbury area.  That's fine.  The one closest to our home by the roadside is a drive-up with a protruding slot in which we can drop off letters without needing to get out of the car.  It was damaged 4 years back and replaced with one without the protruding lip (that costs may be $50 extra) so that everyone using it had to park and get out of the car to use it.  It took them two years to affix that lip and I'm thinking of the hundreds of thousands, if not millions of times users had to be inconvenienced in this time. 
    • When our daughter Rubina was getting married I went to a privately run authorized post office which was open later than our main office in Danbury. I showed the agent our wedding invitation cards being mailed within and outside the US.  He determined the postage due, sold the stamps, helped affix these and accepted the cards for delivery.  Ten days later some of these came back to our address (apparently from some sorting facility) for insufficient postage.  Because they were square in shape, not rectangular, they asked for 17 cents extra.  So the mail sorters acted at odds with the counter sales person working for the same organization, wasting our time and effort in the process. 

There's hope.  When Obama first entered the White House he didn't have any executive experience unlike Clinton who had been governor of Arkansas.  Now with four plus years under his belt Obama can do better in performing the "ordinary" but important role of government.

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