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Four months after a former CEO went to work in the Commerce Dept., he quit. Here's his opinion on Washington now.
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When former Cray Research CEO John Rollwagen was lured to Washington to become second-in-command in the Commerce Department, the move was said to launch a new era of partnership between government and business. But four months later, Rollwagen quit. This is what he thinks of Washington now

I didn't go to Washington navely. In government things happen by rules that aren't the same as those in the private sector, and I thought I understood the differences. But in the final analysis I was not prepared to make the transition to breathing whatever it is those people breathe. It was as if I were trying to grow gills. I think I could have done it, but I chose not to.

And yet my leaving doesn't constitute a criticism; in ways that surprise me, I'm heartened by what I saw in Washington. As frustrating as the place is for a transplanted company grower, Washington's processes aren't worse than those in the business world, only different. For which, it turns out, we should be grateful. Because the same things that make Washington frustratingly different also make it relentlessly democratic. And fascinating as well.

A business, of course, is anything but democratic. Though it's not a dictatorship, people unquestioningly understand that somebody needs to be in charge; somebody ultimately needs to decide which single purpose the company will pursue. The secret of business, especially these days, is to focus relentlessly on your unfair advantage -- the thing you do that others don't. Mindful of that focus, you decide on specific objectives and on the division of labor needed to achieve them. Plenty of debate may precede the setting of those goals, but in the end everyone signs on. Which makes business an essentially exclusionary enterprise, not an inclusionary one. Anybody is welcome to join as long as he or she agrees with exactly what we're for. If you don't agree, please don't come; go do something else.

The government, of course, can't say that.

Government is inclusive and operates with checks and balances that aren't present in the private sector. As a result Washington is set up with nobody in charge; in fact, it's set up specifically to prevent having somebody in charge. Including -- maybe especially -- the president.

What's more, since nobody's in charge and we have a constitutionally protected tradition of inclusiveness (thankfully, government can't exclude anyone the way business can), the truth is that everybody's in charge -- a subtle but important distinction.

Unfortunately, whether because nobody's in charge or everyone is, nothing gets done. Every decision, every tiny step politicians or administrators or bureaucrats take, reflects a balance struck among competing interests that never compromise -- and even that momentary balance is fleeting. Everything in Washington happens only in the present moment; there is no past and no future. As a policymaker I might make a deal with you based on the current set of forces tugging at me and say, This is it, this is where we are. But in five minutes our deal might be off because in those five minutes the forces have changed and my position has changed with them. So while you can count on the truth of what I've said when I say it, you can't count on its being true five minutes later. There's never any agreement that a position will be stuck to after the forces that produced it have shifted -- which they inevitably will. That constant balancing act undermines all hope of long-term goal setting -- the kind of goal setting no business could live without.

When you're inside Washington you see signs of that goalless condition everywhere. For instance, there's a big management-by-objective program in the Commerce Department. Every quarter it produces a document that's an inch and a half thick. I looked at one and discovered there wasn't a single defined objective or any reported progress toward an objective in the whole document. Instead there was an amazing amount of information about activity. The closest thing to an objective was that some group had held 12 meetings on some subject that quarter, compared with 10 meetings the previous quarter -- representing, as the report stated, a 20% increase in activity. In Washington, that's what passes as progress toward a goal.

Real goals require compromise, which I imagine was more possible when our government was organized, 200 years ago. Rather than simply holding to unshakable positions, back then the representatives of different views could argue until they came up with a plan that was reasonably appropriate for everybody -- resulting in a common goal. But for compromise like that to work, you need privacy. People need to be able to sit down and chat and fight and try out different ideas without making a commitment. Trouble is, in the current media environment, everybody is on C-SPAN, being scrutinized by each narrowly interested constituency that put him or her there. And any visible form of even tentative compromise is interpreted by those constituencies as weakness or a sellout. So compromise is sunk; instead of a shared goal, there is only the constant balancing of extreme interests.

Balance can, however, still produce the same result compromise can -- it's just that the position is reached in a different way. That is the one thing, I'm afraid, Bill Clinton doesn't understand. He wants to negotiate compromise, when what he needs to do is force the system in his direction. Which means taking an extreme position in order to adjust the flow.

Ronald Reagan understood that perfectly, though with a twist. Rather than taking an extreme position, he was like a rock in a rapid. He took a position and refused to change it -- he wouldn't even discuss changing it. I'm the president this is what I believe. I'm the president this is what I believe. He influenced the flow by forcing the water to move around him.

Taking an extreme position means tipping the balance way beyond the position you actually favor -- just as when you're in a sailboat on a broad reach and you have to lean way out over the side to counterbalance the force of the wind. It's the only way to keep the boat upright and heading in the direction you want. Clinton, on the other hand, keeps trying to find the compromise, the exact right answer. And that's like standing next to the mast while Bob Dole tips the boat in the other direction. Bam. The boat capsizes.

Still, however flawed the governing process seems, it has an upside, too. If nobody in Washington is in charge, then guess who is? We are. All of us.

At the Commerce Department a lot of time was spent trying to figure out what folks in, say, Minnesota were thinking. Though the special-interest groups are influential because they have money and you can't get elected without money, you can't get elected without votes, either -- and the special-interest groups do not deliver votes. So policymakers try hard to accommodate the special interests, but they try harder to figure out what the people want.

The system, perverse as it seems, turns out to be democratic.

Which just may mean, in the end, that the inefficiencies we like to blame on politicians and bureaucrats -- their inability to deliver on the promises we extract from them -- are as much our fault as theirs. The message Washington hears when it does listen to Minnesota or Peoria or wherever is, I want I want I want. I don't want to pay I don't want to pay. Nobody wants responsibility. And the truth is that if someone in Washington did want responsibility, he or she would have a hard time taking it anyway.

So blaming Washington for every ill is not just unfair, it's so far off the mark that it's silly. The fact is, when we look at Washington, we're looking at America. Maybe a kind of fun-house America, one that's a little distorted, but America nonetheless. It has no substance of its own. It is us.

* * *

John Rollwagen, former CEO of Cray Research, was Commerce Secretary Ron Brown's second-in-command in the spring of 1993.

Last updated: Jan 1, 1994




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