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Ignorance Was Bliss

“What party is running the legislature?”

“What party is the governor?”

Those were two questions that we were frequently asked by reporters back in the early days of the Government Performance Project, when we were evaluating management capacity in the states (and occasionally cities and counties).

You may not believe this, given the way the world appears today, but frequently, we couldn’t answer one or both of those queries.

One of the major areas of focus then – as it is in our careers now – on management; the critical skills that often lead to the success of failure of policies, no matter how sensible they may appear.

We were able to do dozens of interviews in each of the states, come to conclusions about how well they managed human resources, infrastructure, budgeting, and so on, and not have party politics play a role in most of our conversations.

These days, when articles are written about the states, they’re not just divided into big states and little states or rural states and urban states. They’re called red states and blue states. It begins to feel like this has always been the case, but “some credit Tim Russert as the first TV news person to refer to red states and blue states on a Today show segment in 2000,” according to a 2016 article in the Los Angeles Times.

To be sure, we were pretty clear about the parties of the candidates in the states in which we voted (mostly New York). But it didn’t seem to matter a whole lot to us whether a democratic or a republican legislator was supporting management techniques like workforce planning or multi-year revenue forecasting.

In those years, Virginia tended to do pretty well in our evaluations, under three democrats and two republicans. Even when the party affiliation of the governor changed, high ranking officials in positions like finance director didn’t necessarily change. It will be interesting to see whether that will be the case when the new republican governor of the commonwealth, Glenn Youngkin takes office, in January. We’re not making any predictions, but we’ll bet a nickel that appointees from the previous democratic administration are likely going to be asked to clean out their desks.

Whether we’re right or wrong about Virginia, the trend we’re describing in the states is inescapable. And that make us more than a little sad. It’s hard enough running a government efficiently and effectively without the need to hew to the line of either of the political parties.

We saw this phenomenon at its worst over the course of the pandemic. The ways in which states chose to manage the attack of COVID frequently fell into line with the party in control. Should we manage this deadly outbreak by masking? That’s an important question. But why, oh why, should the answer be so clearly correlated to the party running the show? Shouldn’t decisions like this be developed through data, performance measures, evaluations and all the factors that went into our evaluation of something we called “managing for results,” in the first days of the GPP (and its predecessor, a project we created for the long-defunct publication Financial World).

We believe that most things in the world are cyclical. And maybe things will go back to a time that we look back at as the “good old days.” We hope so. But we’re not holding our breaths.


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