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Working in the Government – Is Business Experience Relevant?

With all due respect to the Founding Fathers, the “Executive” Branch is somewhat of a misnomer.

As we approach the upcoming election, there has been a great deal written about how relevant business experience is in determining whether a candidate would be a successful government leader. Mitt Romney in particular has claimed that the country needs someone with business experience in the White House. And Mr. Romney isn’t breaking new ground–business executives aspiring to elective office have been making the same pitch for decades.

The argument that business experience is a desirable quality in our nation’s leaders is based on two basic premises: first, that government would be more efficient, more responsive, and less wasteful if it were run like a business; and second, that candidates with business experience have a better understanding of the economy and the needs of the business community, and would therefore be more likely to develop and promote policies that create jobs.

In 2009, after a highly successful career in the private sector, I was appointed as Chief Financial Officer at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. At the time, I believed that the skills, experience, and knowledge I had obtained could be applied to the government. In a time of budget constraints and economic challenges, my ability to drive cost-savings using proven techniques (Lean Processes, Six Sigma, Total Quality Management) would be welcomed and embraced.

Notwithstanding my idealism and desire to make a difference, for a variety of reasons, I quickly learned that I was wrong to assume that my private sector experience could be transposed to the government. The fact of the matter is that government can’t–and shouldn’t–always be run like a business.

As a CEO in the private sector, a business leader develops a strategic plan and puts together a budget that is used to implement the plans required to achieve the defined objectives. The goal is clear: maximize the return for your shareholders and continue to build the economic value of your business. The people that approve your budget, your Board of Directors, all share the same goals.

This is in sharp contrast to the government, where the Administration–let alone the individual agencies themselves–has only partial control over its own budget. In theory, at USDA, I was part of a leadership team that managed a $100 billion enterprise. Our goal was to efficiently manage the agency and effectively utilize taxpayer dollars for the good of our country.

In reality, our agency’s budget proposal was only part of the overall Administration budget, in which a number of programs and priorities were competing for limited resources. And the final funding decisions were made by members of Congress, whose interest in getting reelected often overshadows their commitment to good government. As a fellow CEO once put it, when it comes to the federal budget, “every dollar saved is a dollar out of a Congressman’s district.”

As for the claim that business experience translates to effective stewardship of the economy, as I explained in a recent piece on job creation, it’s certainly valid to examine the economic records of candidates for higher office. But while there are clearly specific programs where government policies directly translate to job growth–e.g. those related to support for state and local governments (police, firefighters, teachers), defense contracts, and transportation projects (highways, bridges)–the truth is, for most American businesses, the impact of government economic programs is minimal. Individual officials–including the President–have limited power to enact even those programs, and even less control over the broader economic conditions that really matter.

For my part, it’s unfortunate that my success in business wasn’t more directly applicable to my government service. And I continue to believe that having a range of perspectives can only strengthen one’s ability to lead. But rather than hearing about which candidates are more qualified to run a business, I’d like to hear about the ones who know how to run a government–including how to make it efficient despite its inherent challenges, where it can be most helpful in influencing economic conditions, and when it should step aside.

Do you think a candidate’s business experience is vital to their success? Why or why not?


Posted July 16, 2012

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