Public admin.: How will this crisis transform agencies?

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Nathan Abse interviews Prof. James Perry, Indiana University distinguished professor of public administration, on comparing the current crisis around the war in Ukraine with rapid civil service transformations during the Cold War ...

As the month-old war in Ukraine grinds on, everyone from experts in government to outside academics, to the President himself, is comparing this moment to previous sudden turning points in our government’s spending and direction. They cite a line of crises that transformed America’s military, but also its civil service and its focus too. For example, when the Soviet Union consolidated the Iron Curtain against Western democracies in Eastern Europe in the late 1940s, the U.S. leaped from disengagement to massive renewed effort in the area—with huge moves at agencies on diplomacy, intelligence, NATO, the Marshall Plan and other aid. Other sharp turns include the sudden federal funding for science spending after Sputnik; the swift scale-up at DOD in the late Cold War, followed by the sharp drawdowns after the Berlin Wall fell. This week, Nathan Abse interviews Prof. James Perry, Indiana University’s distinguished professor of public administration, for his take on such comparisons—and on what makes this moment unique, how we got here and what’s next during this turning point.

Q&A with James Perry

With the war in Ukraine killing thousands and threatening the entire post-WWII system, as an expert on the civil service: Do you see a big pivot ahead in resources among agencies?

Perry: Yes, I do. One of the many issues here is what already has transpired in the immediate lead-up to the Ukraine conflict. With respect to how this war will change our civil service, some of that is already underway—and that’s the point. We’re already in a pivot point. Looking back, many have noted our national security and intelligence agencies became a focus and got a huge boost from the beginning of the Cold War. In recent years, these agencies—as well as the State Department—all endured a terrible erosion, both in trust from the public and as elements of our governmental system—particularly under the last administration. But then, in recent months, with the intelligence about Ukraine being accurate and, unusually, shared with the public—these agencies have regained some of that lost ground.

Your take on those institutions—as having eroded under Trump—is widespread among experts, but can you elaborate on how that happened? 

Perry: Yes. Specifically, these agencies were reduced in their capacities and were only beginning to get re-built in the immediate run up to this war—the conflict and then the invasion of Ukraine. Our government had lost an enormous amount of talent from the State Department. Frankly, that’s because of the way Donald Trump’s administration ran the State Department. And I mean the [political] people he had in the State Department, and who was appointed to work on Ukraine. Look, it’s no coincidence that his first impeachment was about, basically, the president attempting to shake down the new president of Ukraine for dirt on his political opponents the Bidens as a way of advancing his personal and political goals. And then we have this. Obviously, his aims there had nothing to do with the public interest. That, and then it got worse in his meeting with Putin in Helsinki.

President Trump was very deferential to Mr. Putin at the Helsinki summit in 2018—with his taking at face value Putin’s statement that Russia had not interfered with our elections—so?

Perry: That’s right. And that’s when we, and our agencies and institutions, hit a low point. The president denigrated his State Department, already by then hit with low morale and losing talent. He disregarded our intelligence agencies entirely. He said publicly that he believed Mr. Putin over all of our intelligence professionals.

“Low point”—so you believe some improvement has happened since?

Perry: Yes. So, here I want to note two things. We’ve seen professionalism and our intelligence coming back. We see high regard for both our national intelligence agencies as well as the State Department. It’s very clear that this has happened since the advent of the Biden administration, which took specific steps to build back normal processes. So that’s one good. And my second point—difficult to say in the midst of a terrible war—but I think another good thing has happened. A range of agencies have gotten deserved high marks for their work—and that’s helped with the useful rhetoric and policy approach of the administration in the run up to this invasion and war. Why do I say that? In part because the Biden administration actually listened to our national intelligence experts and professionals, about what was happening. They used the information provided to guide good decisions. Clearly that did not happen under President Trump—and the process sometimes had failed very seriously in the past. I mentioned Helsinki during Trump administration, but there are other examples. Certainly, with Iraq policy during the George W. Bush administration, and the misuse of intelligence with respect to WMDs and that war. Having said all this, the recent renewed—and I think proper—use of good intelligence work is a very positive development, with very positive results. That is itself a “turning point,” one associated with relying again on the State Department regarding diplomacy and foreign affairs, and on our national intelligence professionals for their part. So, yes it’s a terrible war, but our agencies’ work and response are all very good. 

So, you see a stark turning point having started even before the Ukraine war, since the 2020 election—among agencies, with renewed heft for State and our intel agencies?

Perry: Right. And part of the issue is that the Biden administration aimed to, and did, restore some of the morale—and as you know that’s very, very important—and human capacity that we had lost during the Trump administration. So, yes, we were already on the right arc leading up to this war. I just want to make the point that this alone is important with respect to your questions—regardless of whether certain agencies now getting more traction actually get more resources, more money. We’ve already got a good start on restoring the credibility and function of our national intelligence apparatus and State Department professionals, which on the merit of their work are providing impetus toward restoring the capacity of these elements of our governmental system. That’s been made even clearer by their impressive work, and the administration’s handling of it, in the lead-up to this war. 

Can you quantify any of this?

Perry: I’ve not followed up yet on numbers here—money to agencies, money to Ukraine, etc. I suspect that, clearly we're channeling monies to Ukraine, from our military establishment, and that's going to probably sort of enhance our capabilities there, indirectly. But the point is—we don’t know what is happening next in this war. And I'm not sure there will be a big change, a big outpouring of funding to our government agencies in this direction.

So, although our international affairs-facing agencies might gain renewed importance, they might—along with all other agencies—be in for static funding? 

Perry: That exactly what I’m saying. As a matter of fact, we're going to probably have to step back and look at all aspects of our budgetary system and spending going forward.

Why?

Perry: Because interest rate increases that have already begun, and a variety of other macroeconomic trends that are set to occur. We just won’t be able to borrow as before. But I want to come back to my last point—that overall, as to the direction and weight of these agencies, I see positive developments in their capacity. And that’s happening whether as a result of better funding or, far more likely, as a result of their showing competence and actually executing the mission in an administration that has helped them to do so. Again, I think it's more the latter that will have more influence over time on their trajectory, rather than budgetary increases that may come in wake of the current conflict.

Looking at our civil service as a whole and its work: Are we back to a Cold War, no matter how this war turns out?

Perry: Clearly, I do think, yes, we may be headed into a new era. Who knows how long this war is going to last? And just as in the Cold War there was the strong tendency to buttress our military establishment and increase our reliance on our national security structure, those same trends are all very likely again. I think this is a new … well, I wouldn't call it a Cold War at this point. I would say it's more a hot war, one that is going to have—by necessity here—a favorable focusing influence on the ability of the agencies. Good effects on the elements and components of our governmental system we’ve discussed—State and diplomatic, intelligence—with good results from them. Clearly part of what happens next is based on performance, and as long as these agencies perform, they will probably be rewarded some in their future budgets.

What about the effects of the war and improved perception—possibly—of agencies on recruiting and retaining young people?

Perry: That’s happening here. We have, as your question implies, a likely increase in attracting young people into the system—with young people stepping forward. Because this external conflict is a very real threat and comes from another country operating improperly. And in addition to the effect on employees, we’ve seen galvanizing political effects. We've already seen Democrats and Republicans be able to sort of coalesce around bipartisan national interests again. I think all of these factors will have an important influence on the civil service going forward.

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