Progress in Civil Service Reform: Alumni Reunions and Refresher

June 12, 2003
Doug Gavel

Significant progress has been made in civil service reform noted the former President of the Federal Reserve Paul Volcker who chairs the privately sponsored Commission on Public Service.
Volcker, a 1951 graduate of the Kennedy School (known then as the Littauer School for Public Administration), spoke at an alumni refresher and reunion event that includes panel discussions and presentations by scholars and public leaders.
It is a very difficult challenge, Volcker said "to break out of the rigidities of the civil service, but still have the accountability necessary," alluding to archaic rules of hiring and firing as well as the huge challenge of attracting, motivating, and retaining the quality of people necessary for government to function effectively.
"There have been some good models," Volcker said. Many of the traditional "obstacles" were removed in order to create the new Department of Homeland Security. "It is a large department that has paralleled what we were thinking of," he said of the Commission's proposals. He added that the new agency is bringing together many different functions and has an overriding objective.
Volcker said federal agencies that have been given flexibility have made substantial improvements. "The IRS got it," he said, noting its successful reforms. "The SEC didn't get it," and look what happened there, he quipped, alluding to recent corporate governance scandals.
America's role in the world post-Iraq war was the focus of a Forum panel discussion following Volcker's speech. Kennedy School Dean Joseph Nye opened the discussion by arguing that the United States is "not well suited to empire," a predicament that could undermine post-war efforts. "We are really good at kicking down the door and beating up a dictator," he said, "but we are not good at building a democracy in Iraq or elsewhere."
Academic Dean Stephen Walt, citing the ongoing challenges in Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea and the Middle East, noted that the "United States now has an extraordinarily full plate in terms of foreign policy."
John White, lecturer in public policy, analyzed the state of American military might post-Iraq war, commending its flexibility, operational integration, and technological superiority, but he warned the overall strategy in Iraq will fail if the U.S.-led coalition is unable to secure a stable and meaningful peace in Iraq.
Providing a fresh perspective of the so-called "Islamic World," Brenda Shaffer, research director of the Kennedy School's Caspian Studies Program, said the term was an anachronism since states in the region do not behave solely on cultural or religious concerns. A more realistic assessment, Shaffer said, would provide many more options for the U.S. to consider when crafting policy in the region.

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