Differences in Pontificators, Opinionators, and Plumbers

Perhaps my favorite syndicated columnist is Robert J. Samuelson.  He writes primarily about economic issues.  He rarely mentions politicians or political parties by name.  His writing is addressed at problem definition and analysis of various alternative courses of future action.  He doesn’t throw stones, but rather provides some helpful ideas on understanding the issues of the day.  On last Saturday, the local paper ran one of his columns wherein he suggested reading an essay by Jon Kingsdale which was recently published in the Washington Post.  Kingsdale ran the health exchange for the state of Massachusetts.  Samuelson tells us that even though Kingsdale backs the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), he thinks the administration faces “lots more problems” even after the web site is eventually up and running.  Samuelson goes on to summarize some of Kingsdale’s thinking, but then makes this observation:

Without intending it, Kingsdale has, I think, identified a central source of “Obamacare’s”  problems:  The people who created the program had no idea of how it would be put into effect.  They just took it for granted that the law would be implemented and perform, more or less, as intended.  This attitude .., reflects a broader problem in business and government.

He goes on to say that there is a “class structure” in large, public and private organizations.  One class, the leaders, are the “Pontificators”.  They enunciate broad, often worthy, goals and values.  He also identifies columnists as Pontificators as well.  The president of the country is, he thinks, the Pontificator in Chief of the government and in business “these people cluster in executive suites”.  But most workers, he says, belong to the “Plumber class”.  They are the workers who are supposed to implement the Pontificators” pronouncements and commands.  But, he adds, the Pontificators have only a sketchy notion of what the plumbers need to do or what the real world requires.

Now I think he’s onto something, but I think his basic idea needs a little refining.  Once, when I was in a general management position in charge of a fairly large organization, I asked my chief of staff one day why something wasn’t finished because it didn’t seem like it should be that hard to do.  Her response was, “Everything seems easy to the man who doesn’t have to do the work”.  I understood exactly what she meant, because I started out as a Plumber, but sometimes, even ex-Plumbers need to be reminded that often things are not as simple as they seem.  The advantage corporate executives have is that most of them started out as Plumbers and even though they may need to be reminded from time to time, they generally have a good understanding of what it takes to plan and implement a new program.  Most politicians, on the other hand, have never been Plumbers.  They have no clue, and probably don’t even know the right questions.  The permanent (non-elected) government employees, should know better.  But my guess is that too frequently they aren’t asked, and they know if they keep their mouth shut, there will be new elected leadership and, in any event, they won’t be fired.  Is it any wonder that Peter Drucker – probably the best known management “guru” of the 20th Century – said that although some worthwhile activities may need government pontification and support, we should never let the government actually “do” anything if we can help it.  Things will be better managed if done in the private sector.

With all due respect to Robert Samuelson, I would differentiate the news media “pundits” class from the other two as well.  I would call newspaper columnists and television commentators Opinionators.   Like the politicians, most of the news commentators have never been Plumbers either.  But the pundits have the added advantage of not having to take responsibility for any of their opinions or suggestions.  Things may seem easy for the man who doesn’t have to do the work, but they may be even easier for the person who doesn’t have to take responsibility for his or her suggestions.  The argument from the press is that they can be more objective.  While this is a valid point, true objectivity requires some knowledge of the issues, the alternative courses of  action and the work required for implementation.  With a few notable exceptions, there doesn’t seem to be much knowledge exhibited by these media folks.  And while they have the freedom to talk to the Plumbers, they seem to spend most of their time with the politicians.  So even though they would maintain that a free press is essential, in a democracy, to provide information and knowledge on issues to the electorate, that doesn’t seem to happen with great frequency.  (Samuelson is a notable exception, which is why I like his column.)  Without such information and knowledge, how well can the electorate hold the Pontificator politicians responsible for their performance?


About tjc13

BE - Chem Engineering, Vanderbilt Univ, MBA, University of Tulsa - Worked for an energy and chemical company for many years and then started a management consulting business working for both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations.
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