Conservative Godfathers: Reflections from Don Devine, Part II

September 3rd, 2017

This is Part II of a two-part interview with conservative philosopher, former aide to President Ronald Reagan, and author, Donald Devine. You can read Part I here.

Don Devine is one of only a handful of people in Washington who truly understands The Swamp – what makes it tick, how it operates, and how best to move it in the direction set by the people in the preceding election.

Devine was so effective as the head of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) for President Reagan that the Washington Post called him Reagan’s “terrible, swift sword of civil service.”

Interestingly, Devine is likely also one of a handful in Washington who sees positive aspects in some parts of the bureaucracy. In our conversation below, Devine articulates his reasoning for why there are some necessary elements to The Swamp, whether or not the deep state is real, and how best to get bureaucrats to respond to the President’s election mandate.

On the challenges of translating private sector experience to government.

Roy Ash, who was the head of Litton Industries and a Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) accurately described the difference between the public and private sector. He said going from private employment into government management isn’t like going from minor leagues to major leagues in baseball. It’s like going from softball to ice hockey.

Think about this for a minute. If you’re a manager in your company, would you act differently if the labor unions had a seat on your board of directors, if your competitors had a seat on your board of directors, if your enemies had a seat on your board of directors? Would you operate your company differently than you do now?

When you’re trying to be a manager in government, your board of directors is Congress. When Ash was in charge, the Congress was totally controlled by the Democrats. So, his opposition was literally his board of directors!

Government management is fundamentally different than the private sector, and people who come in from the private sector have a terrible adjustment to make. Their strength in the private sector is actually a problem for them in the government. In the private sector, executives can act on their own, and do what they want to do, and they can trust their employees. They can fire their employees if they don’t do what they’re supposed to do.

In the government, it’s not so much that you can’t fire people – although that is a big problem – it’s that you don’t know what your employees are doing!

In his book Bureaucracy, Ludwig von Mises says that the reason the private sector is so different than the public sector is that, no matter how many layers there are below you, all you have to do is pick up your profit and loss statement, and find out what each unit is doing. If it’s making money, good, if it’s not, get rid of it. There is no equivalent measurement in government.

Some people will say, but doesn’t the federal budget process provide that information about government? The budget process is absolutely the opposite of the profit process, because in the government, if something is failing, what is the answer? You don’t cut it, you throw more money in to make it work! It’s absolutely the reverse of the private sector model.


On whether or not the “deep state” is real.

 The deep state isn’t a conspiracy, it’s just how bureaucracy works. It’s normal bureaucratic behavior – to succeed, to move up, to have bigger budgets, to build a team to support each other internally. The best way to do that is to keep the status quo and not change it very much. Left unsupervised, that behavior leads to bad outcomes.

It should be pointed out that when Reagan came in, the behavior of the bureaucracy was similar to that under Trump. Reagan was received in the same way – the bureaucracy considered Reagan the devil incarnate. They were publicly opposed to him. The unions encouraged what they called “job actions,” which were to report in, but not do any work, or take sick leave in protest.

We were in a totally adversarial atmosphere. It wasn’t changed until the air controllers went on strike, and Reagan fired them and wouldn’t take them back. Then that was the end of all those job actions. Because they were afraid of him.


On the current delay in nominations and confirmations.

Congress is certainly holding up nominations. But the other problem is that the White House isn’t sending over enough nominees. Other administrations had submitted nearly triple the amount of nominations by this time.

One way the Trump administration could speed up the process is by filling political positions at the Senior Executive Service (SES) level. You could appoint every non-career SES person into a position in senior agency management – and have them start today. They don’t even have to wait for a security clearance, they can get a waiver and simply recuse themselves from security matters. If they wanted to, the White House could fill many positions this way, and do it immediately.


On the best way to manage the swamp.

 There are two ways to manage the bureaucracy. The first is through political management, or Cabinet-level management. This is political appointees managing the government. The second is by scientific, or expert management.

Expert management began with Woodrow Wilson. He wrote an article in 1886 called The Study of Administration. Up until that point, the bureaucracy was all political management. Even the civil service didn’t exist until the late 19th century.

The official institutionalization of the administrative state – of scientific management – was the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921, which set up OMB as a group of career experts that would use their expertise to tell the president how to run the whole government

Most every president thereafter let OMB be their managers of the government.

When Jimmy Carter ran, he said he supported the existing liberal programs – but that they were just managed badly. He got nominated on that, got elected on reforming the bureaucracy. And when he came into office, he actually did it. He passed the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978.

The Civil Service Reform Act gives you all the tools you need to run the government with political administration, if people will actually do it.


On the consequences of not having political management

 Without political supervision, career people run the government, and run it in their agency’s interest without looking at the larger democratic picture. That bigger vision can only be provided by the president and the political appointees he brings with him.

At OPM, I had 20 political people that I put all through the agency to oversee the career people. That’s what I told all the other Reagan political executives to do. And where they did it, it worked. If Trump wants to be successful, he will do the same.