The Secret Science of Government Reform

“It has become physically impossible for one man to see so many persons,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt told Congress on April 25, 1939.

Which is why in 1935 he had tasked his President’s Committee on Administrative Management – Luther Gulick and the political scientists Louis Brownlow and Charles Merriam — to streamline and fortify the executive branch, “to make democracy work,” in his words picked up from Gulick.

(l to r) Luther Gulick, Charles Merriam, Louis Brownlow

PCAM’s mission was notably historic, the greatest federal government restructuring since 1787. It resulted most notably in creation of the Executive Office of the President that created a new managerial structure and consolidated Presidential power, without which the nation might never have finally overcome the Great Depression and won World War II. Until then, as Roosevelt lamented, some 30 major federal agencies and countless minor ones reported directly to him, an impossible burden.

The records reside in 18 archival boxes of our Luther Halsey Gulick III papers, Series IV, Project/Working Files. Duplicates exist in prominent archives like the presidential libraries of Roosevelt in Hyde Park, N.Y.; Harry S. Truman in Independence, Mo.; and John F. Kennedy in Boston. No one has yet digitized them for online access, so far as we know.

Powerful evidence of the value of the collection is the confidential draft of the 1937 government reorganization speech that Gulick wrote for Roosevelt to deliver to Congress. An extensively marked-up typescript that Gulick sweated over (from 5 to 9 a.m. on Jan. 6, 1937, according to Gulick’s meticulous notes) offers an extraordinary window into the thought processes of this pivotal presidential advisor.

Roosevelt gave the speech to Congress six days later largely as Gulick had written it, starting with the ringing opening: “Now that we are out of the trough of the depression, the time has come to set our house in order…”

But it would take two difficult years to get a bill though a hostile Congress in revolt over Roosevelt’s effort to pack the Supreme Court.

Another landmark document is Gulick’s handwritten memo on a “private and confidential” conference with Roosevelt and Brownlow on Nov. 14, 1936, revealing the President’s detailed thoughts on government reorganization. Roosevelt was afraid a constitutional convention could get out of hand, given the various “crackpots” around. “But there are more ways of killing a cat,” FDR said. He read the committee’s proposals with approval, “and said slowly ‘one hundred per cent,’ banging his fist on the table with each word.”

A key historic feature of our PCAM collection is the set of Louis Brownlow’s memoranda – some 1,500 typed pages he viewed as a diary – tracing the history of the reorganization growing out of Brownlow’s 1934 strategy sessions with Roosevelt on civil service reform. By the following year, Brownlow wrote in a “very confidential” diary entry: “The President also said he was interested in having a study made of the possibilities of reorganization of the several departments, commissions, and agencies of the Federal Government; that this ought to be undertaken by some non-governmental agency…” Privately, Brownlow doubted it would be possible in the time allotted. He also thought it should be kept largely secret “and that only when pressed should we give out background material for the guidance of correspondents…”

These memos provide fascinating granular insights into day-to-day life in the New Deal – the rivalries, politicking, personal dramas, and, perhaps most of all, the intense dedication of countless public servants to saving American democracy.

One Brownlow memo from 1933 discusses the financial crisis with particular reference to “the situation of the Negro in agriculture and industry.” In another, Roosevelt shares his thoughts on shortcomings of the traditional merit system. From his time as assistant secretary of the Navy, he knew, he said, that to be a bureau chief in the government required only three things: to live, not to get drunk, and to show up promptly at 9 a.m.

One thought on “The Secret Science of Government Reform

  1. Another insightful blog post. From a peek at this collection we can see that there is still more to learn about the New Deal!

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