Organization Man

By Emily Gold Boutilier / November / December 2002
June 28th, 2007
Harold Seidman, a longtime Washington insider renowned as an expert on government management and organization, died August 20. He was ninety-one and had prostate cancer.

During a twenty-five-year career at the U.S. Bureau of the Budget, Seidman helped implement the Marshall Plan and draft the legislation that granted statehood to Alaska and Hawaii. At the time of his death he was senior fellow at the Washington Center for the Study of American Government at Johns Hopkins University.

But Seidman was perhaps best known for his book Politics, Position, and Power: The Dynamics of Federal Organization. First published in 1970, the book went through five editions and is still read by college students and government officials alike. According to colleague Benjamin Ginsberg, the book argues that every government agency has a unique culture, and that one must understand that culture in order to effect change within that agency.

Later editions of the book also focus on government corporations - the private, for-profit organizations that are partially government funded. Seidman was an expert on such corporations, which include the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae). "Harold was one of the first to identify this trend," says Ginsberg, who is director of the Washington Center, "and to argue that this was a step in the wrong direction, that it was transferring public power into the hands of entities who saw their main responsibility as being to shareholders." Seidman liked to say "the government had gone quasi," Ginsberg says. "But he called it cwazy government."

Seidman began his public-service career in 1938 at the New York City Department of Investigation. He published Labor Czars: A History of Labor Racketeering and Investigating Municipal Administration while there. In 1943 he left to join the Budget Bureau, now known as the Office of Management and Budget. At the bureau, Seidman worked under presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. He played a role in establishing Puerto Rico's commonwealth status and in creating the U.S. Department of Transportation. He retired in 1968 as assistant director for management and organization but continued to testify before congressional panels, as well as to consult for then-president Lyndon Johnson.

Seidman had a second career in academia, serving as professor of political science at the University of Connecticut before joining the Center for the Study of American Government in 1987. There, he took a special interest in helping master's students with their theses. "Harold had been in Washington for so long that he could, from personal experience, offer advice on almost every topic," Ginsberg says. "Harold was one of the old-timers who remembered things. That made him invaluable for students."

It also made him a resource for politicians. According to Ginsberg, when President Clinton was developing his health-care reform plan, his staff asked Seidman's advice about the Advisory Commission Act, which governs task forces made up of people who don't work for the government. "The language of the act is somewhat murky and its history is not fully recorded," Ginsberg says. "They came to Harold to find out what they were and were not allowed to do. He gave them excellent advice - which they disregarded." Ginsberg believes that if the administration had simply listened to Seidman, Clinton would have avoided years of investigations into the work of his health-care advisory group.

A member of Phi Beta Kappa, Seidman delivered the Commencement address at his graduation. Titled "The Responsibilities of a College Graduate in a Changing World," it decried the "apathy of American college students toward their government."

Seidman is survived by a nephew and two nieces.

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November / December 2002