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Reviewed by:
  • For the People: Can We Fix Public Service?
  • Elissa McBride
For the People: Can We Fix Public Service? Edited by John D. Donahue and Joseph S. Nye, Jr.Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2003. 282 pp. $49.95 hardback, $19.95 paper.

For the People is a volume containing papers that were written as part of the Visions of Governance in the 21st Century project at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. The contributors represent multiple disciplines, from public policy and economics to international relations and even philosophy. In some cases, the attempt at an inter-disciplinary approach seems forced. I was not sure why one chapter dealing with "improving public service in poor countries" was included. It is out of place in a volume that is otherwise focused almost exclusively on the United States. The contributors are identified in terms of their role at Harvard, but strangely, their experience as practitioners in government is not acknowledged anywhere in the volume. That one of the authors is the former mayor of Indianapolis is not shared with the reader. The writing is, for the most part, highly academic but not [End Page 95] inaccessible. Some of the chapters are extremely well written, in particular those by Donohue, Robert Behn, and Derek Bok.

One frustrating aspect of the book for labor educators is the almost complete absence of any references to unions, a strange omission given that union density is large in the public sector. When I cracked the book open, I immediately checked the index for my own union and other public service unions and found nothing. In fact, there is no reference to unions in the index at all. I did eventually come to a chapter on the labor/management partnership between the mayor of Indianapolis and the AFSCME local there. This chapter was stuffed with quotes from union leaders from the local, but it was unique in the volume in two ways. It was the only chapter to deal with unions. It was also the only chapter to include the voices of employees.

The volume is well-structured by the editors and makes an orderly progression through three sections: the diagnosis, or "what's wrong with public service today"; the desiderata, or "what should the future look like"; and the prescriptions, or "how do we get from here to there." Part I, the diagnosis section, is primarily focused on the role of leaders in public service. Part II, on what the future should look like, includes the chapter on the Indianapolis municipal reform effort and the "lessons that might be learned from one city's efforts to create a new set of conditions for employee fulfillment." As mentioned above, this chapter is rich in the perspectives of employees. It paints an extremely favorable picture of the impact of the reforms on both the city and the workforce, and it finds that of all the players in the municipal reform effort, middle management was the most averse to change. Unfortunately, it lacks a coherent structure and any quantitative data to support its conclusions. Despite that, it would be a very useful reading in a course on labor/management cooperation.

In contrast, another chapter in this section, which deals with the human resources system in federal government, includes no input from employees. It relies instead on a survey of college students regarding whether they would ever consider working for the federal government. The description of the federal government's system is truly frightening, and some clear recommendations for improvement are offered by authors Linda Bilmes and Jeffrey Neal, but the lack of input from workers is very perplexing and definitely weakens their case.

The final section, on prescriptions to improve public service, includes an interesting chapter on performance pay which concludes that it is only effective under specific and "rarely met" conditions. It also includes a capstone chapter by Derek Bok, which is a well-written reflection on the performance of our executive branch, as compared to those in other industrialized nations. [End Page 96] It contains a refreshingly humble assessment of the correlation between academic success and leadership ability. Its conclusions focus mostly on the...


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pp. 95-97
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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Archived 2007
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