John F. Lehman Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
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What was the thrust of your critique of government? You were suggesting that things could be done better. What were the particular problems that you thought you knew existed before you went [into government]?
I was schooled at Penn in the realpolitik, realist school that Strausz-Hupé was well identified with. He was the originator of the academic approach of geopolitics to international relations. That was the schooling or the frame of thought that I came from at Penn, the realist school, and the realist critique of the foreign policy of the sixties was that it was naïve; that it based its hopes on a collective security, backed with unilateral disarmament that was making the likelihood of conflicts like Vietnam higher rather than lower; that it was simply wrong as an approach to international relations; that it projected a hope, and substituted that for reality. So I felt that the orthodoxy of the State Department, the Defense Department, the Congress was simply fundamentally wrong.
Looking back at your career, you've had jobs like Secretary of the Navy, and you were in the Arms Control Disarmament Agency. What kinds of things surprised you that you hadn't gotten from the books?
What surprised me most that is not possible to get from the books is the power of the entrenched bureaucracy. Bureaucracy as a phenomenon is probably the most important dimension of government today, and it is the one that is ignored by academic theory. There are libraries full of books on the presidency -- the imperial presidency, the decline of the presidency, the rise of the presidency -- a dissection by every empirical and anecdotal approach to analyzing the presidency, the congress, the courts, the international system, systems theory, conflict resolution theory; but nobody looks at the bureaucracy. We have built over time a bureaucracy of such strength in which resides so much of the real decision-making that that, more than any other dimension, is what surprised me the most. It's all very well to have a new frontier come to town with new ideas of how they're going to orient the policy in government, it's all very well for Ronald Reagan to come to town with his new ideas, but most administrations are very naïve in understanding what it takes to change policy, or to carry out policy.
For instance, in the Pentagon there are 90,000 bureaucrats in the Department of Defense, in the headquarters, most of whom have no real lines of authority to the Secretary of Defense. The Secretary of Defense can't hire them, he can't fire them, he can't give them a raise, he can't give them a bonus, he can't give them a promotion, or a demotion; so most of them don't really know his name. And why should they? He can't affect their lives. There are dozens and dozens of these baronies of career bureaucrats who actually do the conduct of defense policy, the procuring, the buying of beans and bullets, and the developing of weapons; and they are not really amenable to accept exhortation, if you will, from management. The fundamental, simplest tools, the necessary tools of managing, are not available to manage most of the U.S. government.
Give us a concrete example of encountering this bureaucracy as Secretary of the Navy, wanting to get something done and not being able to.
I recall one occasion when I was out flying an F-14 on the West Coast down at Point Mugu. We were testing the defenses against the Exocet missile -- we were actually firing Exocets against target destroyers. Among other things, we were testing the look-down/shoot-down capability of the F-14. So I was out there for several days flying intercept against these Exocet missiles. In the F-14 and Navy jets you wear leg restraints to attach your legs to the ejection seat -- they're simply nylon webbing, and there are a couple of nylon straps with a buckle that connects you. I came back in, and after I debriefed, I was walking out and I still had the leg restraints on. The parachute rigger said, "Excuse me, Mr. Secretary, could I have those leg restraints back? I keep them in the safe." I said, "Sure. I'm sorry. I have my own back in Washington. Here they are." And he said, "You know, since you put in the policy of making every squadron unit accountable for a budget for all its spare parts, we've got to keep very close tabs on these leg restraints, because they're $400 a pair." And I said, "You've got to be kidding, $400 a pair!"
So when I got back to Washington, I checked into it. I called the Nav Air Bureau that buys aviation spares, and I said, "Tell me what these things cost. I was told they were $400, and I want to know what they cost." And the memo came back, and I said, "They don't cost $400. The left one cost $185; the right one costs $213." Because they have different parts numbers, they had each taken a random path through the pricing bureaucracy, and exactly the same mirror-image products came back with that. I said, "That's crazy. These things are just nylon webbing. I want you to do a should-cost study. What would it take us to produce these ourselves?" It came back $12 for the pair. So I said, "You go back and negotiate with Martin-Baker."
Like everything in the Pentagon, which is really a socialist buying system, we were buying it at the time [from a] sole source, monopoly, cost-plus contract, and so we were paying through the nose. I said, "Renegotiate the contract. We'll pay $12, which is what it cost to build it, and we'll give them a 10 percent profit, and that's what we'll do." They came back and said, "Sorry, we can't renegotiate the contract because these parts are bought ... " like most of the services who get the blame for all the cost overruns, it's really bought not by the services, but by the Defense Logistics Agency, which is a 60,000-person bureaucracy of career bureaucrats that don't report to anybody. Nobody has line authority over them.
So I said, "Well, okay, go talk to DLA and tell them I want this renegotiated." I got a memo back from the Defense Logistics Agency saying, "We see no reason to renegotiate this contract. We have procured these parts through the same system we have procured them for the last fifteen years, and we do not support your should-cost study, and thank you for your interest." Boom. That was it.
We're still paying about $400 a pair -- this is nine years later -- because there's no way to get into that bureaucracy. They don't work for anybody. Nobody can fire them. Nobody can tell them what to do. They come in and work according to their procedures.
That's a little example, but is writ large across the way. We dispense welfare checks -- the whole issue of welfare in the government and entitlement programs, programs for children, and education, and the needy, and the homeless -- the real robbery from those needy recipients of what should be public concern is the hydra-like growth of bureaucracy that soaks up the money that's appropriated. Very few of those bucks for these federal government programs ever actually get into the hands of the people who need them, because we have allowed a system to grow, so that every time you start a program, or you want to increase the Food Stamps program, or the Head Start program for underprivileged children, the first thing that the money is used for is to do studies, and hire more bureaucrats and consultants to study the problem, and how to set it up. And then when you decide how you're going to implement it, then you go hire a very large staff before the first dollar begins to trickle down.
The problem of bureaucracy runs through every federal government program, and every state program, and every city program; yet it's never addressed from an academic point of view.
What, then, is the key to initiating a policy and seeing it through and getting it done? Is it that you're starting with a clean slate, with a new team that you brought in, or what?
The beginning of accomplishing something is to know what you want to accomplish, and to have a clear and simple strategy, with objectives that are achievable. Then you have to begin and be persistent, because the bureaucracy, having said all these negative things about it, the bureaucracy does respond to hard rudder, but you've got to keep the rudder over, and you've got to be persistent in the policy initiative. You can't just start issuing fiats and expect that they will be carried out, because they won't be carried out. You've got to see that the decisions are implemented. You have to follow up on them. You have to have people who are savvy and smart enough in the ways of Washington to follow up for you, who can provide some incentives within the bureaucracy to see that there is a reward/punishment structure, which having said there is none, in fact, there are ways to do it, but you have to work at it.
Above all, you have to have tenure, you have to stay. You have to stay more than eighteen months, because if the bureaucracy perceives that you're just one more of these in-and-outers, that you're going to be gone in eighteen months -- and the average for a political appointee is less than two years -- then why should they even learn your name, let alone your policy? You're going to be gone before you can implement it.
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