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Why the Corporate 'Quick Fix' Sometimes Fails in Government

August 13, 1995|JUDY B. ROSENER | JUDY B. ROSENER is a professor in the Graduate School of Management at UC Irvine. She is the author of "America's Competitive Secret: Utilizing Women as a Management Strategy."

At a time when citizens are increasingly unhappy with government, more and more members of the business community are being called upon to help public officials solve society's problems. Many corporate executives are becoming part of government in a variety of ways.

On the federal level, Roger Johnson, former chief executive of Western Digital Corp., is currently the administrator of the General Services Administration, the largest government operations agency in Washington. Richard Riordan, who made his fortune as a venture capitalist, is mayor of Los Angeles. William Popejoy, a successful former savings and loan executive, recently served as chief executive officer of Orange County.

All three have been at the center of a major crisis during the last two years, and since a crisis usually requires the type of leadership that corporate leaders exhibit, a look at their experiences is instructive.

These men probably had misgivings about working with government employees before their public service, feeling as many in business do that public employees are less talented than those in the world of commerce. In times of crisis, however, Americans see many government employees, particularly emergency workers, in a different light. They become heroes participating in rescue efforts during fires, floods, earthquakes and civil unrest.

Roger Johnson was responsible for overseeing the response to the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, in which 168 people were killed. Riordan led the cleanup and rebuilding after the devastating Northridge earthquake in 1994. Popejoy was called into service as chief executive when Orange County filed for bankruptcy, though he later resigned with his job largely unfinished.

According to Johnson, a big problem in government is that employees are not managed as efficiently as those in the private sector. However, he says, when given the opportunity to make decisions and take responsibility for their actions, government employees perform well.

Riordan also found this to be true. He uses the word empowerment to describe his efforts to delegate responsibility to city employees and community leaders as a way of making government more efficient and its activities more effective.

Popejoy admits he was skeptical about having to depend on public employees for information and ideas as he developed his bankruptcy recovery plan. He says he was delighted to find Orange County employees bright, dedicated and hard-working, and he regrets having to fire capable employees because of budget cuts. In fact, he contends that the government employees with whom he worked were every bit as qualified as those in the private sector.

Popejoy feels his failure to generate the votes needed to pass a sales tax (the linchpin of his recovery plan) was caused by his belief that passage could be accomplished quickly. He learned that while a corporate "quick fix" orientation works well in periods of crisis, mobilizing public opinion and developing consensus take time.

Riordan also found this to be case. He was not able to fulfill a campaign promise to sell Los Angeles International Airport. He also failed to have Los Angeles designated a federal empowerment zone. However, his relationships with grass-roots groups and other public officials have been greatly enhanced by his development and funding of a community development bank.

In the aftermath of the Northridge earthquake, Riordan was the titular leader in the city and he called the shots. Johnson had the power and authority vested in him by the President, which aided him in Oklahoma. Popejoy, however, did not have the power base or the authority to make his recovery plan a reality. He was appointed for a limited period and had to answer to five elected supervisors who had their own ideas of what should be done.

What is the message these experiences send?

* First, while the corporate "quick fix" orientation may work well in earthquakes and bombings, it may not work in cases of fiscal or social crisis.

* Second, leaders must have a base of power that allows them to fulfill their promises and accomplish their missions.

* Third, government employees are probably every bit as competent as those in the private sector.

As more and more members of the business community join the ranks of government, questions need to be asked. If government looks different from the inside, how does being an insider change the way those in public service are viewed? Have business leaders been responsible for changes in the operation of government? If so, what are the implications of those changes? Most important, as leaders from the private sector become public officials, will the government-bashing subside?

These are important questions, for as long as those in the public sector are devalued, and government discredited, competent people will be discouraged from pursuing careers in public service. Contrary to the wishes of some, the private sector can't run this country alone.

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