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Ways That Governing Can Work

Recent Gallup polling shows that two-thirds of the nation doesn’t trust the government to do what’s right. Regardless of whether you buy into the arguments of the tea partiers, it’s pretty easy to point out ways that government has gone wrong. In fact, the narrative of government incompetence remains powerful.

But on the other side of the argument, there are William D. Eggers and John O’Leary, who recently wrote “If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government.— The book attempts to lay out an argument frequently talked about, but less frequently followed: that government can be effectual. The authors also tell us how to get there.

Both authors measure up when it comes to qualifications and together represent leadership in academia and the private sector. Eggers is a global director for Deloitte Research. He has previously authored several books on public policy and government. O’Leary is a research fellow with the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School.

In an interview, Eggers said they had two overriding reasons for writing the book. “If you go into a bookstore, you don’t find many books that address big initiatives in the public sector,— he said. “Most books are politically hot. We wanted to fill the gap.—

Second, Eggers said the book represents an effort to restore pride in government. “The biggest need in government is to close the gap between goals and achievements,— he said. That aim is reflected in the book’s title — one of the most effective actions of the government in the 20th century was to put a man on the moon.

And with the beginning of a new presidential administration, the opportunity to address what Eggers called the execution and creation of policy seemed perfect. With help from graduate students across the country, the authors surveyed some of the big public policy initiatives of the 20th century — both successful and failed — to present lessons learned.

To the authors’ credit, readability was a goal they had, and the book largely achieves that aim. At 241 pages, each chapter is laid out with a guide to help the reader navigate through the book’s pertinent points. And at the end of each chapter a “field guide— is presented to summarize and execute the chapter’s points.

The majority of the book is devoted to discussing seven different “traps— that hinder effective public policy. For example, in the “The Tolstoy Trap— chapter, the authors address the problem of confirmation bias, or “looking only at evidence that confirms your view of the world.— With each trap, solutions are offered along with additional research to try to escape the challenge.

The argument from the traps discussed usually leads back to a failed process. With critical thought on the failures of the system, the authors suggest improvements, rather than simply blame the bureaucracy.

The vignettes the authors use to illustrate the various policy traps are interesting aspects of the book. The back story to the health care reform effort in Massachusetts under then-Gov. Mitt Romney (R) is offered as a study on making public policy by including diverse viewpoints. Examples of government failure are not glossed over, though. One infamous example of a failed process is the Big Dig, Boston’s transportation boondoggle.

Undoubtedly, even if all members of the government, from the legislative side to the agency side, were required to read the book, Eggers and O’Leary’s aim of an effectual government wouldn’t automatically happen.

However, in the age of books laden with ideology and politics, the book represents an important first step in thinking differently. The divide between the legislative world of Congress and the implementation side of the bureaucracy is in desperate need of being bridged. Eggers and O’Leary have started to build that bridge.

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