Friday, February 6, 2015

The Power of Quiet Bureaucratic Competence

Heard much from the FDA lately? News, scandals, headlines about crisis? Me neither.

Back under Bush II the Food and Drug Administration was the most troubled agency in Washington, its old employees in open rebellion against its leadership and taking early retirement in droves. This was because Bush and his people set out to "revolutionize" the agency and make it work with pharmaceutical companies to bring drugs to market more quickly, rather than setting up "regulatory roadblocks." The FDA old guard revolted and told every reporter who would listen that safety was being compromised for profit.

Obama wanted an end to all that drama. So as FDA commissioner he appointed Dr. Margaret Hamburg, who committed herself to finding a middle way through these issues. Lo and behold, the agency disappeared from the headlines, the angry broadsides stopped coming from the staff, the drug makers stopped deluging Capitol Hill with demands for reform. This is the power of leadership that makes sense. I don't have the personal connections to the agency I had a decade ago, so maybe I have lost touch a little, but the Post tracks these agency matters pretty closely and stories about poor morale and mass retirements from the FDA have simply stopped.

Hamburg is no magician and the FDA remains embroiled in disputes; its mission of regulating drugs and medical devices is a hard one and there is no perfect formula. But by focusing on the agency's mission and keeping that focus steady for six years, she has made it a good place to work again. So I was a little sad that she has announced her retirement, and I hope she finds something worthwhile and fulfilling to do.

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