CAPE ELIZABETH — How often have we heard the declaration, “We need to run government like a business”?

No, we don’t. Well, except perhaps for one critical practice – hiring candidates with proven abilities and relevant experience.

Many businesses pursue profits with a laser-straight chain of command and management style that a king or queen might appreciate. The only appropriate answer to “Jump” is “How high?” Not very touchy-feely, but very efficient.

Under the terms of the U.S. Constitution, our government is quite deliberately inefficient. The realization of public policies, not profits, is the goal. Oh, and by the way, whoever is commander in chief must pursue those policies while being second-guessed by a 535-member board of directors called Congress, about 2 million federal employees, millions of voting taxpayers, God knows how many lobbyists, campaign contributors and special interests and thousands of irritating journalists. Plus the civil service rules and the employee unions. Plus the entire judicial system.

Don’t get me wrong: I have no sympathy for the current administration’s difficulties. They’ve brought it on themselves, and continue their knee-jerk barrage of self-inflicted wounds. Fact is, I find it alarming that the current resident of the White House doesn’t seem to understand how the government he heads actually works. But he’s a great object lesson in how government doesn’t work. In Washington, everything moves slowly (if at all) and entails compromise, not dictatorial commands.

This is not new. There’s a wonderfully illustrative 1952 quote from President Harry Truman upon learning of former five-star Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s election as the next president. “Poor Ike,” said Truman. “He’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen.” And that was back in the day when the federal government was less than the behemoth it has become.


Take, for example, the Department of Homeland Security, where the current purges are underway. Given the focus of this White House, a citizen could be forgiven for thinking that the main job of DHS is guarding our borders. That is indeed a primary element of the mission, but DHS was created from 22 separate federal agencies after 9/11. Its mission also includes, in part: counterterrorism, intelligence, infrastructure protection, cybersecurity and disaster management. Today, it has about 240,000 employees, roughly the size of AT&T, more than General Motors or Bank of America, about 50,000 more than Starbucks. Big organizations need big, experienced leaders.

Besides Customs and Border Protection, the agencies and functions that report to the secretary of DHS include:

• The Coast Guard.

• The Secret Service.

* Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

• The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.


• U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

• The Transportation Security Administration.

• The Federal Air Marshal Service.

• The Federal Emergency Management Agency.

• The Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.

As I write, we have no permanent DHS secretary, no permanent deputy DHS secretary and no permanent ICE administrator; FEMA has no permanent director; the chief of the Secret Service is being replaced, along with the department’s general counsel, and there’s no permanent Customs and Border Protection head or department inspector general. And that’s just DHS.


Usually silent and complicit, even Republicans are beginning to notice. In a tweet, Ron Johnson, R-Wis., chairman of the Senate committee that oversees DHS, said: “In addition to congressional dysfunction, I am concerned with a growing leadership void within the department tasked with addressing some of the most significant problems facing the nation.”

So, given the size and complexity of our federal government, are there any lessons to be learned from business? Here’s one: How about concentrating on the basics of executive recruitment? Separating your political pals from the pool of qualified candidates? Hiring people who know the difference between casting a reality TV show and governing a country, perhaps?

Leaving critical leadership positions unfilled, or filling them with predictably unqualified sycophants, is a dangerous pattern – particularly in a department charged with protecting the homeland from a variety of threats.

That’s no way to run a business. Or a government. Or a lemonade stand.

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