When I was a graduate student in public administration about 20 years ago, one of my professors was the much-published, much-decorated Robert Golembiewski.  He was almost as wide as he was tall, had a terrific head of white hair with accompanying white beard and mustache, and proudly displayed a large poster for Polish Solidarity (SOLIDARNOSC!) on the door to his office.

He and I spoke many times as I took every advantage of opportunities to learn from him.  I still recall a framed letter he had from another very famous social scientist, Aaron Wildavsky.  The letter opened by congratulating Golembiewski on some photograph that had been taken of him and subsequently appeared somewhere notable.  “What an excellent likeness, Bob.”  In the second paragraph, Wildavsky announced that he had cancer and would not live very long.

On the occasion of one of my visits, I was excitedly discussing the book Reinventing Government by Osborne and Gaebler and the corresponding Clinton reform initiative, the National Performance Review.  I was surprised to hear Golembiewski dismiss the initiative as “just another management sheep dip.”  The conversation didn’t go much further because I had no idea what sheep dip was.  I have since figured out that he was referring to a veterinary treatment for sheep similar to the kind of special bath dogs get to keep fleas and other pests at bay.

Today, I was thinking about Golembiewski and “management sheep dip.”  I think his critique was that most managerial reforms are like a coating that appears to work for a while, but doesn’t change the essence underneath. The conversation came home to me as I took my class through a case study about education reform in Denver during the last decade.  Michael Bennet managed to become a U.S. Senator after his purported turnaround of the schools in Denver.  It is clear that he worked hard.  I am less sure whether his reforms were successful.  It mostly seems that the force of his personality was important, but now he is gone.

We frequently hear about new plans for big reforms.  People make much of them, although those of us who understand PR appreciate that the gains get pumped up larger than they really are and the problems are minimized.  We get catchy labels such as Scientific Management, Total Quality Management, Lean Six Sigma, Reinventing Government (which is my favorite for what it’s worth), and others.  A number of people make a lot of money promoting these ideas, writing, consulting, etc.  But what it really comes down to is a few things.  Do political leaders, administrators, and employees care about their work?  Are they honest?  Do they have integrity?  Are they competent?  I would submit to you that if those things are true, then it not so much the managerial sheep dip that we are proposing that matters so much as it is the soul with which we approach the work.

Here’s the really terrible side of that truth.  If you have political leaders who just care about moving up to the next job, administrators and other employees who are primarily worried about getting more money and better benefits and having an easy life, then whatever sheep dip you apply will make things look and smell better for a short while, but you’ll go right back into mediocrity or worse, decay.

Fundamentally, if you have competent, conscientious people working in good faith, then the system you have is a matter of secondary importance.  This is an awful thing to understand, because it means if you have a bad culture, if your people lack character, if families aren’t raising children well . . . then you don’t have a great chance of turning things around.

We basically have two hopes for making things better.

One is that technology improves so much that we can afford our many social pathologies.  (Of course, that road may lead to the kind of human existence we see portrayed in WALL-E.)

The other lies with spiritual renewal.  And that road is the tougher one by far.

In fact, you have to die first.  And then you have to live again.