Lewis on the federal government

A powerful excerpt from the new book by Michael Lewis - the fifth risk from The Guardian.

It goes to show why Peter Drucker suggested that focussing on government innovation may be the most important task for the next 25 years.

Anyway, from the point of view of a smart, talented person trying to decide whether to work for the US government, the single most glaring defect was the absence of an upside. The jobs were not well-paid compared with their equivalents in the private sector. And the only time government employees were recognised was if they screwed up — in which case they often became the wrong kind of famous. In 2002, Stier created an annual black tie, Oscars-like awards ceremony to celebrate people who had done extraordinary things in government.

Every year the Sammies — as Stier called them, in honour of his original patron — attracted a few more celebrities and a bit more media attention. And every year, the list of achievements was mind-blowing. A guy in the energy department (Frazer Lockhart) organised the first successful cleanup of a nuclear weapons factory, in Rocky Flats, Colorado, and had brought it in 60 years early and $30bn under budget. A woman at the Federal Trade Commission (Eileen Harrington) had built the Do Not Call Registry, which spared the entire country from trillions of irritating sales pitches. A National Institutes of Health researcher (Steven Rosenberg) had pioneered immunotherapy, which had successfully treated previously incurable cancers. There were hundreds of fantastically important success stories in the US government. They just never got told.

Stier knew an astonishing number of them. He had detected a pattern: a surprising number of the people responsible for them were first-generation Americans who had come from places without well-functioning governments. People who had lived without government were more likely to find meaning in it. On the other hand, people who had never experienced a collapsed state were slow to appreciate a state that had not yet collapsed.

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