Wednesday, September 20, 2006

COLUMN -- Tilting at the CEO: A necessary evil or partner in progress?

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:46 AM |  

Wednesday, Sept 20, 2006

I intended to write today about the quixotic primary challenges of Republican Sue Jeffers and Democrat Becky Lourey. Lourey challenged DFL-endorsed Mike Hatch from the traditional left with a platform of helping Minnesotans who most need help. Jeffers challenged sitting governor Tim Pawlenty from the economic right, arguing for fiscal conservatism and limited government.

In their own ways, both women tilted at giants of established power despite warnings that their foes were simply windmills grinding out party politics and would ultimately carry the day. And indeed, political winds unsaddled both women. Each finished her primary run a little better than Apathy, slightly behind Indifference, and well back of the endorsed candidates Hatch and Pawlenty.

An admirer of Cervantes’ knight-errant, I was going to extend the Don Quixote metaphor into a column on the nobility of daring the impossible, the dream of winning by standing on principle. But then I discovered that Jeffers and Lourey weren’t running for governor after all. The job they were seeking was CEO of Minnesota, Inc.

“An interview with Minnesota’s current CEO” ran on Sunday’s Pioneer Press Viewpoints page. For four years, Dan Carr, president of The Collaborative, has interviewed Gov. Pawlenty about the “business” of running the state’s largest employer – Minnesota state government. The Collaborative is a network of Minnesota businesses, as its name suggests, promoting a strong infrastructure to support growing businesses. State government is definitely a partner in that network.

The metaphor of government as a business has a nice ring to it. It jingles of fiscal responsibility, effectiveness and efficiency. It resonates with buzzwords like “strategy,” “vision” and “objectives.”

“We were clear about our vision, and we did a lot of good tactical things,” Gov. Pawlenty said in his 2003 interview with Carr. “We were aggressive about marketing and defending our positions and making sure that we used all the levers that we had at our disposal to assure things got accomplished. … You have to have goals, some benchmarks and a vision.”

Jeffers’ libertarian brand of Republicanism doesn’t play well in that model. The idea of government using the levers of tax and regulatory policy, subsidies and economic incentives to implement a top-down vision is a sharp rap to the knuckles of the invisible hand of spontaneous, market-driven growth.

Lourey’s idealism also would struggle in the corporate model of Minnesota, Inc.
In his 2004 questioning of Pawlenty, Carr contrasted a pragmatic, goal-oriented, forward-looking CEO with the more idealistic and less pragmatic modus operandi of politicians. Pawlenty noted that while people in the legislative process have their hearts in the right place, it is difficult to manage any common solution when expectations vary, and there are no objective measurements. Corporate America provides Pawlenty’s operational benchmark.

“Slowly, 20 years late, government is kind of lurching in that direction (measurement),” he said. “Still not anywhere near where it needs to be, certainly not anywhere near where corporate America is.”

It’s also hard to imagine Mike Hatch, who built his career and his reputation being a public watchdog on the private sector, sliding easily into the role of Minnesota’s ready-to-partner CEO. Pawlenty quotes Thomas Friedman on globalization, Richard Florida on attracting “the creative class” and Harvard professor Michael Porter on “economic clusters.” Mike Hatch likes to quote Mike Hatch on Mike Hatch.

Back-to-back reading of all four Collaborative interviews, one discovers a governor who fits very comfortably into the strategic visionary CEO model. Reading what then-conservative hero Pawlenty was saying in 2003, one should not be surprised that in 2006 conservatives are soured stakeholders of Minnesota, Inc.

“This has historically been a place where it is hard to get people to move here, but once here, they like it. We have to have some amenities and a high quality of life for that to continue,” said Pawlenty in 2003. “That is why, as our budget is stabilized, you will see us pay attention to quality of life issues and how it relates to academic institutions, sporting opportunities and recreation opportunities.”

Indeed, we have.

In 2003 the tough, fiscally conservative CEO model played really well with conservatives. The question now is whether conservatives can live with the visionary, itching-to-invest-for-a-better-Minnesota CEO model. Or can conservatives live with the CEO model at all? Government run as a business is not Thomas Paine’s “necessary evil,” but then, perhaps Paine and the other founders were simply tilting at windmills.

Update: From Speed Gibson:
I've always felt Pawlenty never really did give up his old job as a Legislative leader. With the added powers of being Governor, he is indeed the very model of a modern Prime Minister - and not a CEO.
Good post. Read it here.