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Can't-Do Government

By Paul C. Light
Wednesday, June 25, 2008

We've seen the federal government at its worst over the past six months. Consider the controversies over contaminated tomatoes and meat, tainted toys, toxic trailers, counterfeit Heparin, aircraft groundings, veterans' care, missing warheads and unrelenting contract fraud. For every NASA success on the surface of Mars, there seems to be a failure back on Earth.

Congress and the presidential candidates have yet to connect the dots: The next president will inherit what Alexander Hamilton called a "government ill executed."

The evidence starts at the top of government, where the next president will oversee at least 64 discrete titles, including associate deputy secretaries, deputy associate undersecretaries and assistant assistant secretaries. The layering not only increases the distance that information must travel before reaching the president, it also obscures true performance.

In addition, the next president will appoint almost 3,000 political executives. Not only will these appointees dilute transparency between the top and bottom of government, but each must go through a brutish approval process that will vitiate the chain of command. The 60 pages of clearance forms have never been more complex or difficult to complete -- one set has to be filled out using a typewriter. Hillary Clinton might have promised to be ready on Day One, but she would have been lucky if her appointees were in place by March of Year Two.

The president will also oversee a federal workforce that is increasingly frustrated and demoralized -- with good reason. Asked to do more with less, it is close to doing everything with almost nothing. Federal employees do not get the resources necessary to do their jobs; they rate their leadership as barely competent at best (and getting worse) and give their hiring and disciplinary processes failing marks. Turnover is up at all levels, while customer service ratings are down.

The next president will also be responsible for recruiting thousands of new employees. However, many of the most talented young Americans consider the federal government a career of last resort. They understandably wonder whether government service would give them a chance to make a difference and acquire the skills they need in an unforgiving economy. They are not saying "show us the money" but "show us the work." And federal work has not been showing well lately.

Finally, the next president will be in charge of an invisible workforce that has grown from an estimated 4.4 million contractors in 1999 to 7.6 million today. As the number of large contracts has increased and competition has declined, it has become nearly impossible to reward or hold contractors accountable for their work, whether on the streets of Baghdad or on the space shuttle launch pad.

Tinkering will not fix these problems. A faster hiring process merely hastens the day that frustrated young employees leave; deep cuts in the number of presidential appointees merely shift the layering to civil servants. Although both ideas make sense on their own, they will not have much impact without a complete overhaul of the federal machine.

The retirement of baby boomers from the federal workforce could provide the needed impetus for such an effort. If current projections hold, almost half the federal workforce will retire in the coming decade, including many who entered government during the glory days of the 1960s and '70s, when the call to service was bright.

Viewed as an opportunity, the boomers' retirements could produce long-overdue reform, particularly if the vacancies were not automatically filled by the next federal employee in line. Evaluating each job as its occupant left would create opportunities to thin the government hierarchy and fulfill the promise of meaningful work for talented young Americans. The same process could easily be used to trim the number of contractors.

Whereas the contractor cuts would go directly to savings, however, most of the civil service jobs would move to the bottom of the hierarchy, where services are delivered and contracts are managed. The government could hire more food inspectors, passport handlers, revenue agents, intelligence analysts, aircraft monitors, Border Patrol officers, drug testers and contract specialists -- positions it needs to fill to better run our country and carry out our laws.

But nothing will happen if the presidential candidates continue to treat the cascade of federal failures as a series of unrelated events, not as a pattern of desperate concern. There is still time this summer for Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama to strike a legislative deal to start repairing government. What better signal that they want to deliver on the promises they make?

Paul C. Light is the author of "A Government Ill Executed" and a professor at New York University's Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service.

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