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Lessons to learn from Johnson administration

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By Merilee Dannemann

In the early days of Gary Johnson’s governorship, I had occasion to be at the State Capitol talking with some of his new appointees.
“Oh,” one of them said to me, “so you work for the Department of Labor.” He looked pleased with himself.
“No,” I said. “I work for the Workers’ Compensation Administration.”
“Right,” he said, “Department of Labor.”
“No,” I said, but he didn’t believe me.
Several similar conversations happened with other appointees of the new administration.
A few weeks later, I saw taped to a wall in the Capitol an organization chart of state government, showing a dotted line between the Department of Labor and my agency. We had at one time been “administratively attached” to that department. But we had never been part of it.
The chart was several years out of date. This new gang of managers were relying on it as reference information to learn what they were now in charge of.
Johnson was then the new guy from the private sector who was going to run state government like a business. For most high-level positions, he avoided appointing anyone who had previous government experience. Even those who had spent their careers trying to reform government were, in his view, part of the problem.
You could say those people were Romneyed. That’s a new word I just made up.
During his first legislative session, Johnson declined the help of advisors, read all the bills himself and refused to sign any legislation he didn’t understand. In the budget, he famously line-item vetoed the funding for a critical one-of-a-kind forensic laboratory. Only after the budget was done and he found out the effects of that veto did he learn that he couldn’t undo it.
(Presidents do not have line-item veto power. They cannot selectively veto parts of a budget or any other bill.)
In those days I was championing the need for more training of lower-level employees in state government. Too many of my colleagues at the lower pay grades, I had come to believe, had received only minimal on-the-job training and did not understand the purpose or context of their work. I believed that lack of a broader view was a root cause of both inefficiency and the poor customer service so many New Mexicans complained of.
I talked about this with a legislator who was close to the administration. This legislator, a retired corporate executive, told me employees shouldn’t need training because they should have known how to do the job when they were hired. The nature of much of the work in government is very different from anything workers do in the private sector, but he didn’t want to hear about that.
We have a new national administration coming in that once again is going to run government like a business and, says the new President-elect, “drain the swamp,” although the question was raised in news reports this week as to whether that phrase is still operative.
We’re also hearing that, like Johnson, he relies on his own gut feeling rather than asking anybody. A number of his appointees come from the private sector; they will start off not knowing the structures of the organizations they’re supposed to run or the purposes those organizations are supposed to fulfill.
A recent post from Politico said:
“While Trump made his ‘drain the swamp’ pledge a major part of his campaign message in the final weeks of the presidential race, his transition team was, in its early days after the election, packed with lobbyists for the pharmaceutical, chemical, fossil fuel and tobacco industries.”
Like most citizens, I’d be pleased to see government made more efficient, more cost-effective, significantly less wasteful – and, most important by far, more effective at meeting the appropriate needs of 21st-century America.
Among many concerns about this, I hope they are humble enough to make sure they are starting from a correct organization chart.