Effective Governing Book a Surprise Bestseller

Author Will Partner with CAP on New Report

As antigovernment activists blanketed the National Mall last weekend, the second bestselling political book in Washington stores was a how-to manual for effective governing written by a Republican management consultant and a GOP candidate for the Massachusetts legislature.

If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government, by Deloitte Research Global Director William Eggers and Harvard Kennedy School Fellow John O’Leary, made its debut last week on the Washington Post’s bestseller list 10 months after being published by Harvard Business Press.

The book is aimed at legislators, policymakers, and public-sector managers, and details a five-step “journey to success” for designing and executing major public initiatives. It’s an engaging and accessible read, peppered with vivid anecdotes from the more than 75 initiatives the authors examined, such as Boston’s infamous Big Dig and the “No Child Left Behind” education reform effort.

“In the age of books laden with ideology and politics, the book represents an important first step in thinking differently,” said Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call in a December review. “Eggers and O’Leary’s insights are invaluable,” said the Miami Herald in January.

Still, it’s hardly the stuff of popular bestseller lists. The Post’s political books list is typically littered with more tendentious fare, such as Dick Armey and Matt Kibbe’s Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto, which claimed the top spot last week, and Laura Ingraham’s The Obama Diaries, which was number five.

So what gives? Post Book World editor Chris Schoppa attributes the surprise bestseller—the book was also number five on the Post’s general nonfiction list—to a one-time bulk purchase, probably by a government agency. But Schoppa appreciated the irony of its appearance beside former House Republican Majority Leader Armey’s call for a “hostile takeover” of the Republican Party by the antigovernment grassroots. “I just found it amusing that the antithesis was number one and then this book was number two,” Schoppa said in an interview.

Eggers chaired George W. Bush’s government reform panel during his first presidential campaign, and has worked at conservative think tanks such as the Reason Foundation, the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, and the Heritage Foundation. He said he hopes his book’s themes of operational excellence and focus on execution can help join progressives and conservatives in a common cause. Likewise, O’Leary is campaigning for a GOP seat in the Massachusetts legislature on a platform of government reform, not government evisceration.

“Until small-government types better master the nuts and bolts of the public sector—how to design policies that work in the real world and how to execute on large public undertakings—their initiatives to downsize government will continue to disappoint,” Eggers and Leary wrote earlier this year in a Reason magazine piece titled, “Five Reasons Why Libertarians Shouldn’t Hate Government.”

This focus on execution over ideology is consistent with CAP’s Doing What Works project, which advocates for eliminating misguided spending, improving government execution, and making smarter, evidence-based policy decisions. Our recent poll shows that Americans are more likely to support government efforts to fight poverty and clean the environment if the public sector proves it can get results without wasting taxpayer dollars.

That’s why we’re excited to partner with Eggers later this year on a major report that will expand on one of the key challenges highlighted in his book: designing legislation for effective implementation. CAP Senior Fellow Jitinder Kohli will co-author the report, which stems from interactive brainstorming sessions Eggers and Kohli led at our July conference.

Eggers also participated in a summer Doing What Works panel on social innovation, available on video here. To learn more about his and O’Leary’s book, read an excerpt at Deloitte’s website.

Gadi Dechter is Associate Director of Government Reform at American Progress.

Doing What Works project website