The Job of Government: Interweaving Public Functions and Private Hands

Published date01 March 2015
Date01 March 2015
Donald F. Kettl is professor of public
policy at the University of Maryland. He
is also a nonresident senior fellow in The
Volcker Alliance and in governance studies
at the Brookings Institution. He is author of,
among other books, The Politics of the
Administrative Process and System
under Stress, both published by Sage/
CQ Press.
The Job of Government: Interweaving Public Functions and Private Hands 219
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 75, Iss. 2, pp. 219–229. © 2015 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.12336.
Donald F. Kettl
University of Maryland
Abstract: Lively and sometimes raucous debate about the job of government has increasingly engulfed American
politics. Much of that debate has swirled around government’s size, with conservatives arguing the case for shrinking
government and liberals f‌i ghting to grow it. In reality, however, neither of these debates engages the critical
underlying trend: the increasing interweaving of governmental functions deeply into every f‌i ber of the nongovern-
mental sectors. Many reforms have sought to rein in government’s power, but none has engaged the fundamental
interweaving of policy implementation, and, not surprisingly, most have failed. Indeed, many have eroded the
public’s trust in the governmental institutions on which they depend.  is process raises fundamental challenges for
def‌i ning government’s core role, for building the capacity to govern ef‌f ectively, and for enhancing the accountability
of governmental programs. Many of government’s administrative tools are a poor match for the governance problems
they seek to solve.
Practitioner Points
• Managers f‌i nd themselves increasingly responsible for obtaining outcomes from nongovernmental partners
they do not control, so managers need to devise new strategies of leverage to advance accountability and the
public interest.
•  ese partnerships mediate government’s relationship with citizens, so managers need to help citizens under-
stand better how to connect with government.
Managers need to f‌i nd new strategies for leadership rooted in managing for broader outcomes instead of just
managing their own operations, so that they can ensure ef‌f ective twenty-f‌i rst-century governance.
was the biggest threat to the country. In 1965, 35
percent of those responding said the biggest threat
was big government. By 2013, that number had more
than doubled, to 72 percent (Gallup 2013). A 2014
Rasmussen poll found that 37 percent of likely voters
feared the federal government, and 54 percent of
respondents believed that the federal government was
a threat to individual liberty rather than a protec-
tor of it. Two-thirds of respondents saw the federal
government as “a special interest group that looks out
primarily for its own interests,” a profound worry for
a government whose job is to look out for its people
(Rasmussen Reports 2014).  ese patterns have fed
citizen distrust. When it asked, “How much of the
time do you trust the government in Washington,
the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press
found that those responding “just about always” or
“most of the time” had dropped from 73 percent in
1958 to 19 percent in 2013 (Pew Research Center
2013a). For anyone who cares about government and
its administration, these numbers are frightening.
ey suggest a growing lack of conf‌i dence in govern-
ment and its institutions.
e Job of Government: Interweaving Public
Functions and Private Hands
The United States has a government built on
paradox. Its founders demanded liberty or
death but also enshrined in the Constitution
a commitment to “promote the general welfare.
Balancing this quest for liberty with a search for solu-
tions to public problems has never been an easy one
for the nation, but in recent years, the paradox has
become even sharper. To meet citizens’ rising demands
for solutions to their problems, policy makers have
created more government programs; in an ef‌f ort to
keep government small, they have interwoven the
implementation of governmental programs ever more
deeply into the private and nonprof‌i t sectors.  is, in
turn, has deepened the paradox by blurring the lines
between individual liberty and government authority,
increasing the complexity of public administration,
and making it harder for the government to deliver on
its pledge to promote the general welfare.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Americans’ views
about government are becoming more contentious.
For decades, the Gallup poll asked respondents
whether big business, big labor, or big government

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