Past the Time for Tinkering on Public Service

By Stephen Barr
Tuesday, June 3, 2008

If federal employees are lucky, an enterprising aide to the next president will make sure that a new book by Paul C. Light, the longtime expert on public service, gets on the agenda for the inevitable Oval Office discussion on what to do about the federal government.

The government's problems are in plain view -- the sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina, the outpatient scandal at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, lax oversight by the Federal Aviation Administration, the backlog of benefits claims at the Social Security Administration. To mention a few.

Light, a professor at New York University and a former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, turned to Alexander Hamilton for the title of the book, "A Government Ill Executed: The Decline of the Federal Service and How to Reverse It."

In the Federalist papers, Hamilton argued, "A feeble execution is but another phrase for a bad execution; and a government ill executed, whatever it may be in theory, must be, in practice, a bad government."

The book's title does not mean Light views today's government as a failure (in 2002, he wrote a book celebrating the government's greatest achievements), but he is concerned that the government "is not uniformly well executed" and may not be able to rise to the tasks ahead.

"Federal employees know they do not have enough capacity to do their jobs, and are hungry for change," Light writes. "They also know the time for tinkering is long past.

"Improving the hiring process will not suffice if new recruits do not have the opportunity to grow; enhancing retention will not help if it produces more layers of management; providing new resources will not matter if they are spread too thin; and setting priorities will not generate clarity if appointees are not in office long enough to make the decisions stick," Light says.

Big problems demand big answers, according to Light, and he proposes that the White House and Congress overhaul the government to a degree not seen since the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act.

He contends that the baby-boom retirements give Congress and the next president "the ability to reenergize the federal service without inflicting great pain."

The generational turnover will create gaps in programs and services, but the retirements also create an opportunity to "thin government, shift resources downward to the front lines where government services are delivered" and "abandon needless reform," Light writes.

Light calls for a sorting out of programs and services to eliminate duplication and overlap. His first recommendation is for the government to "decide what it should keep and what it should drop."

He would reduce the number and layers of managers by half at all levels, then shift those jobs to the front lines. "Such redistribution would address complaints from lower-level staff that their organizations simply have too few employees to succeed" and should reduce some of the pressure to contract out federal work, he says.

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