The Tides of Reform

Making Government Work, 1945-1995

Paul C. Light

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During the past fifty years, the Congresses and presidents of the United States have made many efforts to improve the performance of the federal government. In this book, a leading expert in public management examines the most important reform statutes passed and concludes that the problem is not too little reform but too much.

Paul Light explains that Congress and the presidency have never decided whether they trust government and its employees to do their jobs well, and so they have moved back and forth over the decades between four reform philosophies: scientific management, war on waste, watchful eye, and liberation management. These four philosophies, argues Light, operate with different goals, implementation strategies, and impacts. Yet reform initiatives draw on one or another of them almost at random, often canceling out the potential benefits of a particular statute by passing a contradictory statute soon afterward. Light shows that as the public has become increasingly distrustful of government, the reform agenda has favored the war on waste and watchful eye. He analyzes the consequences of these changes for the overall performance of government and offers policy recommendations for future reform approaches.

Paul C. Light is director of the Public Policy Program at the Pew Charitable Trusts and professor of public affairs and political science at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute.

"This book has a sweeping breadth of vision and analysis, as well as thoughtful recommendations that deserve to be taken seriously."—Donald F. Kettl

"The Tides of Reform provides a clear and sophisticated analysis of why so many well meaning efforts to make the federal government work better have little impact or, worse yet, make matters worse. It should be required reading not only for students of public administration and public policy, but also for elected officials whose enthusiasms should be restrained by this cogent explanation of why their highly-touted reforms almost inevitably end in failure."—Robert D. Reischauer, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, and former Director of the Congressional Budget Office

"A master of irony, Dr. Light is a thoughtful, provocative analyst of the contradictions in government reforms. His work is the best history and analysis of management reform in the federal government. He has wittily chronicled the successes and failures and the unintended consequences of the various reform movements."—Stephen Horn, U.S. Representative (R-CA)

"Must reading for all serious students of government. Paul Light offers us a scholarly and provocative look at fifty years of managing government reform and reforming government management."—Senator Fred Thompson, Chairman, United States Senate Governmental Affairs Committee (R-TN)

"Roscoe Conkling, an estimable nineteenth century senator from New York, but no friend of civil service legislation, remarked that 'When Dr. Johnson declared patriotism to be the last refuge of a scoundrel, he underestimated the potential of reform.' Dissatisfied with appointments of the new Garfield administration in 1881, Conkling resigned from the Senate, confident that the state legislature would return him. Alas, the President was assassinated by a 'disappointed office seeker.' The Civil Service Act of 1883 followed, and Conkling's career came to an end. But his warning takes on new life in Paul C. Light's superb trilogy on Federal management reform that began with Monitoring Government, next Thickening Government, and now The Tides of Reform. All wonderfully explanatory; and equally unsettling. In this final volume, he shows that there is not too little management reform in government, but too much. No regime lasts long enough for anything to be learned from it; little wonder the citizenry despair. But there is hope, and it resides in the work of this inspired activist and analyst."—Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY)

"Paul Light is the most original thinker in the field of public administration today."—Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY)

"Light's detailed and comprehensive analysis is ultimately a positive statement about the potential for effective public management, one that brings insight and perspective to contemporary reforms."—Choice

"Should be required reading for students of politics and public administration and will be enlightening for those concerned about the government's effectiveness."—Library Journal

"For federal employees buffetted by reinventing government, process reengineering and performance measurement, public policy expert Paul C. Light has written a book that may help put it all in perspective."—Stephen Barr, Washington Post

"In a period when 'government reform' has hit the headlines again, this book is the one to consult to find out how today's crusades fit into history and what lessons there are to be learned from past efforts at reform."—David Mayhew

Co-winner of the 1997 Louis Brownlow Book Award given by the National Academy of Public Administration
ISBN: 9780300076578
Publication Date: September 10, 1998
304 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4