CHRIS KATTERJOHN Commentary: Does good biz mean good guv?

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Commentary Does good biz mean good guv?

It’s already crystal clear that Gov. Mitch Daniels intends to live up to his promise to shake things up in Indiana government. It’s even clearer that he believes the people who will help him succeed in doing so are people who have been successful in business.

I’m guessing a large number of IBJ readers are eating this up.

For as long as I can remember, businesspeople have complained about government bureaucracy and inefficiency. Invariably, the solution they propose in the next breath goes something like this: If they’d just get some businesspeople in there, they’d see how government’s supposed to be run.

Well, it appears we’re about to have that hypothesis tested in a major way.

From an ex-Galyan’s CEO to a former Golden Rule chief information officer to a career Eli Lilly exec to an ex-Guidant general counsel, Gov. Daniels has filled the vast majority of seats in his cabinet with seasoned business executives, including my own boss, Mickey Maurer.

It’s been a staggering succession of announcements.

At this newspaper, we’ve always been fascinated with the proposition of businesspeople running government. IBJ cofounder John Burkhart and former publisher Nancy Cotterill frequently expressed that sentiment in these pages.

In the early days, we even had some fun with the idea. We fantasized in our Dec. 1, 1980, edition about an all-business cabinet for newly elected President Ronald Reagan in a front-page story headlined “IBJ nominates dream cabinet.”

We were enthralled with the potential of our picks and the impact they could have on government: retired U.S. Army officer and well-known PR exec Howdy Wilcox as secretary of defense; Hillenbrand Industries exec John Hillenbrand as secretary of the interior; PSI Chairman Hugh Barker as secretary of energy, and so on. We were woozy with the possibilities.

Of course, the crux of the theory is that successful businesspeople are no-nonsense, creative types who think strategically, know how to lead, and-perhaps most pertinent to the test at hand-can get things done efficiently.

The question is whether this approach will work in politics and government, worlds that are typically slow-moving and ambiguous compared with the cut-and-dried terrain of business, where CEO is king.

Most national and international political pundits appear skeptical of the concept. I fear their thoughts may reflect the consensus of the public.

“Blinded by their own belief in the superiority of business, guided by simplistic clichés, public servants drawn from the private realm tend to be bad servants of the public,” wrote Richard Sennett, a professor of sociology at the London School of Economics.

“Get [CEOs] talking about how to sell soap or insurance … suddenly they [are] full of energy and interesting ideas. But speak the words ‘public’ or ‘social’ and the metal shutters of the mind come clattering down,” Sennett added.

Newsweek columnist Fareed Zakaria was just as harsh. In 2001, he wrote, “talented people can do well in government if they are willing to treat it as its own separate, serious endeavor. But having been bathed in a culture of adoration and sycophancy … it’s difficult for a CEO to believe he needs to listen and learn, particularly from those despised and poorly paid specimens, politicians, bureaucrats and the media.”

These extreme sentiments reflect a dim and jaded view of today’s CEO, but they may contain a grain of truth, particularly in the minds of state employees and Hoosier legislators. Daniels’ corporate team would do well to recognize that possibility.

I tend to believe the governor’s team members are smart enough and adaptive enough to work within the system while changing it, as long as they understand its ambiguities and consider the many constituencies involved. Their successful track records in business and the skills they bring to government certainly bode well for at least the possibility for major, positive change.

It’s safe to say that a lot of eyes are watching and that the Daniels administration will be a case study of whether a team of business leaders can make good things happen in government. I certainly hope they pass the test.

Katterjohn is publisher of IBJ. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to

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