Return to Home Page Follow us on Twitter Follow us on Facebook Follow us on Instagram Follow us on Youtube


Observation: From ‘Can-Do to ‘Candor’ Public Administration November 2008

From ‘Can-Do’ to ‘Candor’ Public Administration:
The 1960s and What About the Future?

By Richard Nathan
Co-director, the Rockefeller Institute of Government

Richard Nathan

I worked for Nelson A. Rockefeller, altogether for three years from 1962 to 1965 and then again in 1968, as the coordinator of campaign research on domestic issues for his 1964 and 1968 presidential campaigns. What I recall most about public administration in the 1960s is that there was a “Can-Do” spirit, befitting the ebullience and personal style of Nelson Rockefeller. He was a “Can-Do” person. My job was to recruit the best experts in the country as advisors to Rockefeller on issues he wanted to tackle. The job included pricing out the cost of whatever new policies or programs were recommended.

Email a Friend

Bookmark and Share
Richard P. Nathan is co-director of The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York, located in Albany. This article is adapted from remarks delivered in Albany, New York on October 7, 2008, when Dr. Nathan was presented with The Nelson A. Rockefeller Award by the State Academy for Public Administration. Unless otherwise indicated, the opinions and ideas expressed in this paper are those of the author.

For the past twenty years, I have had the honor of heading the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York (SUNY), a system of 64 campuses that Nelson Rockefeller did much to expand, and which was one of his signature accomplishments in the 15 years he served as governor of New York. SUNY is the largest comprehensive system of higher education in the nation with over 80,000 faculty and staff. It enrolls more than 400,000 students from every New York county, all fifty states, and more than 160 foreign countries.

As was his great gift, Nelson Rockefeller was totally unafraid of calling upon the smartest senior aides and experts to advise him. He had around him a group of people with extraordinary range and intellect, yet it was always Nelson Rockefeller who was in charge.

Befitting our namesake, the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government’s mission is to work with experts on American domestic public affairs to conduct research, in many cases field network evaluation studies, on the management and finances of U.S. state and local governments. Our role is not to make policy proposals, but to build knowledge bases to enhance the governance capacity of American states and localities and the myriad nonprofit organizations with which they contract to carry out domestic public purposes. Much of our work deals with New York issues.

To me, the striking thing about public administration today that has changed, and I will argue should change, is that we can no longer rely unreservedly on the “Can-Do” approach. Add one letter — “r.” We need a “Candor” approach to public administration.

In the presidential campaign season, there was a strong “Can-Do” mood in the campaign as is often the case: Elect us and we can do thus and so.

Two things are wrong with the high octane “Can-Do” mood with its easy assumption that a new administration will make big and bold changes, that they will be accepted by the Congress, and quickly go into effect. The legislative process in Washington is one big hurdle.

Added to that, as Alice Rivlin has recently stressed, is that there is an unfortunate tendency to neglect the clear and obvious fact that most domestic policies involve “multiple layers of government in complex and often obscure ways.” The American federal system, Rivlin goes on to say, has many benefits, but at the same time it has the potential “for stress, mismanagement, wasteful infighting, and undesired outcomes when policy makers at all levels lose sight of the importance of keeping the intergovernmental machinery in repair and operating smoothly.”* This is the federalism barrier reef of “Can-Do” public administration. There are some promises that can’t be carried out in a hurry; they require fundamental institutional reform at many levels of American federalism.

* Alice Rivlin, “Foreword” in Timothy J. Conlan and Paul L. Posner, editors, Intergovernmental Management for the Twenty-First Century (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2008). See also Richard P. Nathan, chapter 2 [PDF] in this book, “Updating Theories of American Federalism,” and also Chapter 7, “Devolution in American Federalism in the Twentieth Century,” in Clayton McClure Brooks, editor, A Legacy of Leadership: Governors and American History (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008). The Brookings volume commemorates the 100th anniversary of the National Governors Association.

Let me cut right to the quick with the example of health care reform. All candidates in our presidential campaign season promised reforms of health care in America, often focused on a commitment to expand health insurance coverage in this rich nation, in which upwards of 47 million people do not have coverage. Surely this is a worthy goal. But, we cannot do this quickly and well unless we take on the immense cost pressures and associated political and institutional hurdles the nation would have to face in extending the miracles of modern medicine to everyone.

Peter Orszag, director of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), said this year in Congressional testimony that CBO economic projections show “total federal Medicare and Medicaid outlays will rise from 4 percent of GDP (gross domestic product) in 2007 to 12 percent in 2050 and 19 percent in 2082 — which, as a share of the economy, is roughly the equivalent to the total amount that the federal government spends today.” (Emphasis added.)* This is a long way off — 2082 — but still this represents a jarring fiscal and societal challenge.

* Peter R. Orszag, “The Long-Term Budget Outlook and Options for Slowing the Growth of Health Care Costs,” Testimony before the Committee on Finance, United States Senate, June 17, 2008. PDF available here.

Orszag added to his analysis that,

The bulk of that projected increase in health care spending reflects higher costs per beneficiary rather than an increase in the number of beneficiaries associated with an aging population.

Others, notably David Walker, Peter Peterson, and Governor David Paterson of New York make the same point about the nation’s intrinsically troubled public finances.

The essential challenge is that unless and until we can provide health care more efficiently, there are formidable barriers to any plan (whatever financial approach you favor) for achieving universal coverage. Some health experts emphasize that the cost of covering people who are now not covered is not all that high (they tend to be a healthier population than people who are covered). But there is a catch, a very big one. Politically, the expansion of decent coverage to all would require attending to the fact that many people who are already covered do not have good or even decent coverage. Add the cost of improving their coverage at the same time coverage is provided to the uninsured, and the inexorable CBO arithmetic just cited is made even more difficult.

The economist Mancur Olson made the telling observation that underlies this analysis. As democratic political systems mature, Olson said, the strongest vested interests become increasingly entrenched. Using his terminology,

  • Stable societies with unchanged boundaries tend to accumulate more collusions and organizations for collective action over time.
  • Members of “small” groups have disproportionate organizational power for collective action, and this disproportion diminishes but does not disappear over time.
  • On balance, special-interest organizations and collusions reduce efficiency and aggregate income in the societies in which they operate and make political life more divisive. *

* Mancur Olson, The Rise and Decline of Nations (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1982), p. 74.

Olson, who died in 1998, ended his famous book, The Rise and Decline of Nations, with this hoped-for “happy ending.”

May we not then reasonably expect, if special interests are (as I have claimed) harmful to economic growth, full employment, coherent government, equal opportunity, and social mobility, that students of the matter will become increasingly aware of this as time goes on? And that the awareness eventually will spread to larger and larger proportions of the population? And that this wider awareness will greatly limit the losses from the special interests? This is what I expect, at least when I am searching for a happy ending.*

* Ibid, p. 237.

Happy ending indeed. But can we achieve it?

I do not cite Olson to be pejorative. Public interest groups should be heard. Still, there is no more dramatic proof of Olson’s theorem than the way a wide array of political interests in the American health-care industry have dug in their heels over a long period of time, using their full lobbying and campaign-finance muscle to prevent reforms that would disadvantage them. At their roots, reforms of the kind they have resisted go to the heart of the challenge involved in containing the costs of health care.

I do not suggest that we need, or that it would be reasonable to expect, deep analysis on the stump by candidates for the highest executive branch offices — president, vice president, governor, and mayor. What we need from them in political discourse is candor about how they view the role of government in the society, how hard it is to self govern, and that acknowledges the immensity of the leadership tasks that will be required, not only to accomplish universal health care coverage, but also to achieve other promised domestic public policy purposes.

Besides health care, there are hard challenges for education, jobs, welfare, the environment, infrastructure, housing, energy, emergency management, homeland security, and public safety and corrections. Candidate’s ideas and goals should reflect not just what they will do but also how they will do it. This requires “a sense of governance.” What kinds of people will do the job? How special is it? How in a broad way should we organize to do it? How do we take into account the fundamental federalism terrain? The nation has over 80,000 governments, many of them large — states, counties, cities, and towns — that have to play a role in reforming the organization and delivery of domestic public services.

Government is not small potatoes in the United States, both for the economy and the labor force. Public services account for two-fifths of the gross domestic product. State and local employees, plus the employees of nonprofit organizations (they provide a wide range of domestic public services under contracts, most of which are predominantly paid for with tax money), account for one-in-six persons in the nation’s labor force. Adding in the current CBO-projected $546 billion federal deficit for 2009, the United States faces enormous fiscal and managerial challenges that are made more formidable in the information age. Governing in cyberspace has changed things: Demands are shriller and more ubiquitous. Instant answers are required. Nothing is hidden from view.

In education, the country in 2001 enacted a reform system under the No Child Left Behind law which has caused endless intergovernmental turf battles and backbiting. This comes at the very time the levels of achievement of America’s K-12 students are falling behind, in many cases way behind, the students in other nations, often nations that are much smaller and less well endowed than we are.

Health care and education taken together account for over half of total state and local spending. State and local direct expenditures for the first time in 2001 exceeded federal expenditures.

Can-Do to Candor

In the field of workforce preparation and skills training, which is closely related to K-12 education, experts and major stakeholder organizations are gearing up to press their favored goals. Demands in this field include career education, skills training, a larger role for community colleges, benefits for displaced workers, and skills upgrading systems and programs.* While this is not on the scale of health care and education, the costs involve sizable increases for national and state and local budgets that are already seriously strapped.

* See David F. Shaffer, “The States and Their Community Colleges,” The Rockefeller Institute of Government, May 2008, for an analysis of the rising role of community colleges. PDF available here.

Experts on social policy and advocates for the poor are also in line, stressing how poor families and the working poor are falling behind as income inequalities increase. They cite the fraying of the 1996 national reform law as shown by the falling off of welfare cash assistance and spending for social services to enable the poor to enter and stay in the labor market.* These services include job-related training and skills upgrading, transportation aid, child care, and housing support. They carry large price tags and also involve large-sized institutional challenges for administrative entities in a field in which problems of program proliferation and overlap are epidemic sized.

* See Thomas L. Gais and Lucy Dadayan, “The New Retrenchment: Social Welfare Spending, 1977-2006,” The Rockefeller Institute of Government, September 2008, for an analysis of trends in social welfare spending. PDF available here.

Research we have conducted on the effects of, and responses to, the 2005 Katrina and Rita hurricanes reveals similar pressures for new policies and programs and institutional structures.*

* Reports on this research are available here.

Similar and related needs have been advanced for homeland security, which unfortunately is an area of growing concern.

I marvel that so many political leaders seek the nation’s highest executive offices. The new president’s desk will be piled high with insistent demands for public services that raise large fiscal issues and involve institutional challenges requiring a high level of realism for public administration about things people often don’t want to hear about.

The new president will be advised by a budget director whose job it will be to add up public service demands. Even taking into account that some initiatives can be phased for implementation and setting health care to one side, in the domestic area these demands contribute appreciably to the CBO projections showing the consequences of just projecting out existing federal health care financing commitments.

Hopefully, the new president also will be advised by experts in public administration who make Alice Rivlin’s point about how hard it is to get all the players on the same page to carry out public purposes in American federalism.

And this is just the domestic agenda. Policy and political processes in Washington tend to be dominated by foreign policy and defense. They too involve large costs and, if anything, more complex institutional challenges, especially when it comes to achieving policy purposes in other sovereign nations.


When I was called by Lynn Canton about the 2008 Rockefeller Award, I said I was honored; asked to make remarks that hopefully would be uplifting, I said leadership of the size and energy of Nelson Rockefeller’s is surely needed today. I had in mind making remarks to this effect.

But when I turned to processing words for today, I found myself less hopeful. I decided that in good conscience I could not survey the public administration landscape without emphasizing the changed environment from Nelson Rockefeller’s day. The U.S. economy was relatively better off then in that America’s comparative advantage in the world economy was greater.

There is a large underlying political problem to be faced. The American political system is inherently change resistant. It was built that way. This has helped to make our democratic form stable. We have the longest surviving written constitution in the world. In the heady politics of American pluralism, leaders often gain success by putting together coalitions of interests to overcome what are, if I can call them that, “built-in political stabilizers.” The result for leaders who seek to be change agents is that these bargaining processes often absorb incredible amounts of resources. Compared to the 1960s, we don’t have resources to spare. I worry that American government, and particularly the field of public administration, needs a large dose of candor about the challenges at home for the public service.

The best I can do to inject a hopeful note is to suggest that redemption should be sought by “institutional invention.” The Berger Commission approach in New York, using the base-closing approach to gain agreement on a hospital reorganization plan, is a recent precedent. But this was not easy to do, nor was it a very large first step, nor would it be easy to repeat. In a studies we are conducting of managerial flaws of the No Child Left Behind law, possible health program reorganization strategies, emergency management in the wake of the 2005 Katrina and Rita hurricanes, and social service fragmentation, possibilities emerge that reflect the emphasis of the Rockefeller Institute on building governmental capacity. Still, it has to be said that the size of the tasks to be faced and the difficulties in bringing about institutional change make the challenge for American public administration a daunting one.

Perhaps the economy’s and Wall Street’s recent woes will provide a window of opportunity for a new agenda for American governance. I surely hope so. But it’s hard to be optimistic.


The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York, conducts fiscal and programmatic research on American state and local governments. It works closely with federal, state, and local government agencies nationally and in New York, and draws on the State University’s rich intellectual resources and on networks of public policy academic experts throughout the country.