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System under Stress

System under Stress
The Challenge to 21st Century Governance

Third Edition


March 2013 | 192 pages | CQ Press

In the third edition of his award-winning System under Stress, Donald Kettl looks at the latest stress to hit the system—the financial crisis of 2008. In his brief, gripping narrative, Kettl assesses how well the U.S. political system responds under extraordinary pressure and explores whether the government can effectively handle the next challenge. A well-known scholar, commentator, and writer in the areas of federalism and governance, Kettl asks the hard questions, and while making a credible and persuasive argument, crafts a case study that works in classrooms up and down the political science and public administration curriculum.

In earlier editions, Kettl looked at the massive reorganization under the Department of Homeland Security, a response to the system-wide coordination problems brought to light on 9/11. Better planning, new leadership, and far-reaching reform were to demonstrate that the government would be prepared for the next disaster. Sadly, the catastrophic response to Hurricane Katrina showed how this restructuring did not bring about the long-term policy changes necessary for dealing with threats of this size. In this new edition, Kettl assesses the havoc created by "too big to fail" banks, and even ordinary home buyers, borrowing well beyond their means. Regulators were no match for the banks' speculative betting and highly complicated financial investments. Is the government now better prepared to combat fiscal malfeasance? Can our regulatory structure effectively predict and manage future financial crises?

1. Policy Lightning
2. Coordination Dilemmas
3. Reshaping the Bureaucracy
4. Federalism Jumble
5. The Political Costs of Managing Risk
6. Balancing Liberty with Protection
7. Goldfish Bowls

“One of the book’s many strengths is the way it brings an analytic focus to recent events. It does so in an engaging way, with the book overall written extremely well. And the emphasis on the role of political institutions is right on target.”

Charles Shipan
University of Michigan

“System under Stress offers useful and engaging cases, bringing alive bureaucratic politics. The mixture of detailed case-study facts with probing and thought-provoking questions make System under Stress a brief text that conveys a great deal. I appreciate the analogies to ‘health’ and how the bureaucracy must act in a way to keep things in check, even though it does not control many of the factors that influence ‘the patient.’ It’s a great way to conceptualize the system. I appreciate the addition of the financial crisis. Katrina, terrorism, and financial malfeasance are all very different, but have many of the same impacts on the system. It is instructive for students to see how such different phenomena can result in similar stresses.”

Bryan Brophy-Baermann
Lesley University

“I think the greatest strength of the text is as a case study that applies policy and administrative studies to a pivotal time in American history. These events were so news-worthy that every individual easily has a firm background on the cases and integrating these cases with theories of the policy process is quite beneficial for those new to the subject. Including the recent financial crisis is quite beneficial and not only provides an updated example of crisis, but also helps readers understand that crisis may come in many forms."

Matthew Jones
Portland State University
Key features


  • The third edition examines the latest “stress” to the system, weaving in analysis of the financial crisis in 2008. Kettl discusses the response to the crisis and ensuing recession to explore how well governing institutions have handled another major stress to the system.


  • Set up as a case study, this best-seller uses a theoretical argument and is full of great storytelling that gets readers involved in big ideas about how government works.
  • Combining rigorous analysis with hard-edged realism, this book gets readers thinking about the challenges facing every level of government.
  • Hitting on big themes discussed in American Government and Public Administration courses, this book is appropriate for courses up and down the curriculum.

Sample Materials & Chapters

Chapter 1

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