Washington is having one of its odd debates as to whether the Obama administration’s rollout of HealthCare.gov was worse than the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina. But whatever the answer, if there is one, the real story is that both are examples of a major, and depressing, trend: the declining competence of the federal government. Paul Volcker, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, has been saying for years that most Americans believe their government can no longer act effectively and that this erosion of competence, and hence confidence, is a profound problem.
“The federal service is suffering its greatest crisis since it was founded in the first moments of the republic,” scholar Paul Light writes in his book “A Government Ill Executed.”
Over the past decade, the federal government has had several major challenges: Iraq, Afghanistan, a new homeland security system, Katrina and Obamacare. In almost every case, its performance has been plagued with mismanagement, massive cost overruns and long delays. This was not always so. In the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, federal agencies were often lean, well managed and surprisingly effective. Paul Hoffman, the administrator of the Marshall Plan, pointed out that his monumental project came in on time and under budget.
Some federal agencies still maintain a culture of high performance, including NASA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Federal Reserve System and the Defense Department’s research arm, DARPA. But they are now islands in a sea of mediocrity.
Why? For partly cultural and historical reasons. Americans have always been suspicious of government. Talented young people don’t dream of becoming great bureaucrats. The New Deal and World War II might have changed that for a while, but over the past 30 years, anti-government attitudes have risen substantially. Two national commissions on public service have detailed the dangers of having too few talented people go into government. The ever-increasing obstacles — disclosure forms, conflict-of-interest concerns, political vetting — dissuade and knock out good candidates.
The problem is bipartisan. On the right, too many people believe that their role in Washington is simply to attack, denigrate and defund the government. This relentless onslaught erodes public trust and robs federal agencies of any sense of mission and ambition. Continual budget cutbacks have limited the government’s ability to take on new challenges. There is no attempt at ambitious thinking and planning, whether in space or in infrastructure. Seemingly every agency is in cost-cutting and damage-control modes. The persistent politicized attacks — whether blocking the confirmation of hundreds of officials or investigating them at every turn — have helped create an atmosphere of caution and risk-aversion.
On the left, political agendas and wish lists have trumped a focus on excellence. The federal government has become a dumping ground for all kinds of objectives, such as staffing requirements, procurement rules and organizational structures. The rise of public-sector unions has made the workforce less flexible and less responsive. Stanford scholar Francis Fukuyama notes that half of all new entrants into the federal bureaucracy have been veterans, many of them disabled. It is admirable that the government wants to help veterans, and it should search for ways to expand opportunities for them, but it operates with so many requirements that merit and quality inevitably get downgraded in importance.
Light has outlined how, when Congress passes its mandates, new layers of management are usually created to enforce them. In a study of “frontline” government jobs that matter greatly to the public — revenue agents, air traffic controllers, park rangers — he found that employees had to report up through nine layers of official management and 16 layers of informal management. By Light’s calculation, the average federal employee now receives policy and budgetary guidance through nearly 60 layers of decision-makers.
Why not launch a bipartisan push for a thorough streamlining of the federal government? The focus should be on improving the administrative structure, creating easier ways for talented people to enter government, and providing the incentives for bureaucracies to work effectively.
Some worry that if government works too well, we’ll want more of it. Instead, they simply want to starve the beast. But so much of what government is doing badly cannot be outsourced, privatized or abolished. National security, after all, is the core province of the federal government. , If you add in private contract and grant jobs, about 15 million people are executing the laws, mandates and functions of the federal government. Perhaps that number can be trimmed. But surely the more urgent and important task is to make sure that they are working as effectively and efficiently as they possibly can.