The Bureau of Governmental Research, New Orleans’ venerable policy watchdog, seeks to celebrate distinguished service in the public sector through its biennial Excellence in Government Awards. So it was fitting that author and New Orleans native Michael Lewis took some time during his recent appearance at the group’s annual luncheon to talk up the men and women who work to make sure government does what we all need and expect it to do.
In the program’s q-and-a session with The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate's Gordon Russell, the author of such best-sellers as “The Blind Side” and “The Big Short” talked about what he learned while researching his latest book, “The Fifth Risk.” It explores what Lewis casts as the Trump administration’s disrespect for the sort of technical expertise that keeps the government functioning, and for the public employees who are too often dismissed as shiftless, paper-pushing bureaucrats — or worse, members of some sort of agenda-driven “deep state.”
Lewis told the crowd that he embarked on his reporting with those stereotypes in mind, but quickly discovered a universe full of talented experts committed to doing the right thing for the right reasons, and for less money than they might make in the private sector. One particularly compelling character he described was an oceanographer who spent years studying weather patterns and currents in order to figure out how to help the Coast Guard identify where to search for missing people. He’s credited with saving thousands of lives, with little acclaim.
Lewis’s book focuses on the federal government, but the lessons apply to government at every level.
The same goes for the topic of his popular podcast, “Against the Rules,” which Lewis also discussed at the luncheon. The podcast explores how the growing suspicion of neutral referees in many realms, from the baseball field to the courtroom, can undermine trust, stoke division and lead to abuse. In the realm of government, he emphasized the value of groups such as BGR, which aims to produce sober-minded, informative and unbiased analysis.
“Michael Lewis highlighted two topics uniquely related to BGR’s mission,” said Amy Glovinsky, the organization’s president and CEO. “He illustrated the essential role of public employees in achieving effective government. BGR’s Excellence in Government Awards exist in that same spirit to honor outstanding public employees in the New Orleans area. He also emphasized the importance of a neutral third-party in ensuring accurate information and fair results. BGR serves in this capacity for the issues we cover with our research and reporting.
“We appreciate that he delivered a particularly local perspective on his work and ours,” she said.
The issues Lewis raised during his recent visit to Louisiana should prompt reflection from citizens across the state. Democracy works best when citizens can hold government accountable for its failings. But it’s also important to point out when public servants get it right.