It was an acrimonious and at times downright dysfunctional year in Washington, but those of us who track the nuts and bolts of the federal government for The Washington Post couldn’t let the year go without pointing out some of the things we think the government did well in 2011.
Let’s take a brief look:
1.) Federal disaster response: This year set a record for the most billion-dollar weather disasters in a 12-month period, an unfortunate milestone that included deadly blizzards, tornadoes, heat waves, drought, wildfires, floods and hurricanes. In a year with such destruction, the Federal Emergency Management Agency reestablished itself as a reliable, professional agency capable of responding swiftly and responsibly.
Lawmakers and governors — Democrats and Republicans — cheered FEMA and its no-nonsense, straight-talking boss, Craig Fugate, for taking full advantage of reforms enacted after Hurricane Katrina that allow the agency to preemptively deploy personnel and resources. In turn, President Obama fulfilled a campaign pledge to revamp how the federal government responds to natural disasters. The National Weather Service — often overlooked in conversations about federal disaster response — also deserves credit for once again providing reliable, accurate weather predictions.
2.) Cutting government waste and improper payments: The government made about $110 billion in “improper payments” in fiscal 2011 — to fraudulent contractors, dead people, inmates and others who weren’t supposed to receive the money. It’s a big sum (and one we also named as an “oops” this year), but the figure is down considerably from recent years.
Amid the ongoing debate over federal spending and watchdog reports exposing dozens of cases of government overlap, the White House deserves credit for launching its “Campaign to Cut Waste,” a project that in six months has identified hundreds of millions of dollars in potential savings. But its ultimate key to success will be whether agencies actually end up saving money — and whether the Obama administration, Congress — and yes — the press, holds agencies to account.
3.) Clearing out the backlogs: Good-government groups say federal agencies are doing a better job of responding to Freedom of Information Act requests despite a backlog that in some places still dates to the late 1980s. Federal job applicants also report that they’re receiving responses from prospective employers faster than before. And technology is helping agencies, including the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Social Security Administration, cut significant lag times. It’s nowhere near perfect, but backlogs are shrinking across the government.
4.) Getting a job with the federal government: The average length of time it takes federal agencies to hire new employees dropped significantly this year in response to complaints from job applicants who said the process is too cumbersome. In March, the Office of Personnel Management said agencies were taking about 105 days to recruit and hire workers, cutting the average length of time by about two weeks. That’s good, but not yet near President Obama’s goal of completing the hiring process in no more than 80 days.
Agree or disagree with these choices? Have others to add? Please join the conversation in the comments section below.
Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost