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Can He Push a String?

Paul Volcker’s Latest Hurrah

by RALPH NADER

When towering Paul Volcker speaks, people tend to listen. Formerly the no-nonsense chairman of the Federal Reserve, he proposed measures after the Wall Street crash of 2008 to deal with the “too big to fail” intimidations of the giant banks. With fewer gigantic banks after the Crash, Congress and Obama listened, in some measure, to his ideas for reforms and enacted the so-called Volcker amendment.

Now at age 85, Volcker has launched the Volcker Alliance to improve public administration and implementation of policies and by doing so advance the public interest to improve protections and services for the people. Public trust means more people will participate in governmental decisions and hold government officials responsive and accountable.

The Alliance is a small group with big catalysts in mind between the various players in the public administration arena. Alliance president, Shelley Metzenbaum, understands that public administration – making things happen honestly and efficiently once they are authorized by law – can sound pretty dull. So she uses an example: “When you compare pictures of air quality in Beijing to air quality in major U.S. cities, the difference is incredible. Does that build your trust in government and its ability to make a difference in people’s lives? It should.” (Note: our cities’ air can be even cleaner with better implementations.)

Mr. Volcker, who says he wishes to “rekindle intellectual, practical, and academic interest in the ‘nuts and bolts’ of government” to produce sustained government improvement, knows his latest effort is facing an uphill challenge. Political candidates stereotype and attack government workers at national, state and local levels. Comedians make harsh jokes about them and paint them as dolts or worse. Almost no one speaks out for the civil service and civil servants themselves, under the control of political appointees in their agencies and often shunted by lawmakers, are muted. The vast majority labor in the shadows of their departments – out of sight. Those that do stand up are called “disgruntled employees” or “whistleblowers.”

Granted, there are annual awards to deserving civil servants by presidents and cabinet secretaries and non-profit groups. But they are not presented in dramatic or compelling enough ways to attract much media. Even though there are many non-military, heroic and creative achievements that help many people who never hear of the government employees who were responsible.  There are people like David Nowak, a federal civil servant, who documented the loss of urban trees in twenty major cities and furthered a web-based tool to assess the health of trees in a given community, their benefits and where new trees would be desirable (see www.itreetools.org).

In an interview with the Washington Post last May, Mr. Volcker was unsparing in his criticisms. He excoriates schools of public policy: “Everybody likes to talk about big issues of war and peace and how we take care of poor people and what we do about other social problems [such as infrastructure] in the United States… They do all this talking but they too seldom know how to implement what they’re talking about.” He quotes Thomas Edison who said that vision without execution is hallucination.

Another comment by Mr. Volcker: “There are big issues of recruitment and management. The federal government is really bad at recruitment. We’re talking about state and local administration too.”

Back in 1975 we produced a book called The Spoiled System: A Call for Civil Service Reform by now law professor Robert G. Vaughn. His study, based on wide-ranging interviews and historical context taught us not to stereotype the civil service, to realize that bureaucracies cannot be held accountable without holding their managers accountable and that whistle-blowing protection was crucial in encouraging public servants at all levels to bring their conscience to work.

Public attitudes toward the bureaucracy – largely negative or somnolent in nature – must be changed, including how civil servants view each other.

I have two suggestions for Mr. Volcker’s Alliance (see www.volckeralliance.org). First there should be an independent non-profit group that regularly collects, confirms and releases all the good things that governmental institutions and staff do. As one who, along with allied groups, has criticized and sued the government many times, I can assure you that the “good news” revelations would astonish you.

Did you know, for example, that since the Vietnam War period the major scientific discoveries, until recently, regarding treating malaria, for the soldiers and others, have come from physicians and other scientists who have worked under the Pentagon at what is now called the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center? These medicines were developed through the clinical stage for a fraction of the cost that would have been required by the big, uninterested private drug companies.

My second proposal is for the Alliance to encourage civil servants to create an inter-agency website to greatly intensify the communications across missions and disciplines to expand the creativity and exemplary learning-and-doing processes.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (peer.org) gives a glimmer of the benefits that could flow from such an initiative. Started in 1996 by professional foresters in the U.S. Forest Service, PEER has a remarkable record of research, advocacy and resort to the courts in upholding proper courses of action from corporate/political interference at the top.

The Alliance, to work as a catalyst, needs to arouse the various constituencies of people who can make catalysts possible. Not even Paul Volcker can push a string.

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition.