The real crisis in government

By Paul C. Light
Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The systemic failures that led to the attempted bombing of Northwest Flight 253 are, sadly, all too familiar. Substitute the words "Christmas Day plot" for tainted meat, poisoned peppers, aircraft groundings, the Columbia shuttle accident, Hurricane Katrina, counterfeit Heparin, toxic toys, the banking collapse, Bernie Madoff or even Sept. 11, and the failure to put Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on the "no-fly" list becomes yet another indication that the federal government can no longer guarantee the faithful execution of our laws.

There have been many studies of this issue over the years, including a long list from the Partnership for Public Service. But none are more important than two reports of the National Commission on the Public Service (which, full disclosure, I helped write). Chaired by former Federal Reserve Board chairman Paul A. Volcker, the 1988 commission involved a "who's who" of public servants, including Gerald Ford, Walter Mondale, Vernon Jordan, Donna Shalala, Doug Fraser, John Gardner, Charles "Mac" Mathias, Ed Muskie, John Brademas, Derek Bok and Elliot Richardson.

The commission's report warned about the "quiet crisis" that had emerged in government performance. Citing the need for talented employees at all levels, it highlighted growing problems in attracting talented Americans to government service and what it called a "profound erosion in public trust."

Fifteen years later, a second national commission assessed the quiet crisis, which, by then, was deafening. Instead of focusing on just the people of government, this panel looked at the widening federal agenda after the Sept. 11 attacks as well as underlying causes of poor performance and frequent breakdowns. The final report minced no words: "There are too many decision-makers, too much central clearance, too many bases to touch, and too many overseers with conflicting agendas . . . accountability is hard to discern and harder still to enforce."

The indictment -- sound familiar? -- can be traced to four bureaucratic problems that plague the federal government.

First, the federal government currently has the most confusing hierarchy in its history. Barack Obama entered office overseeing at least 64 discrete titles just at the top of the government. Even one vacancy in the reporting chain can wreak havoc on performance. With more layers of management and more managers per layer, information must travel a great distance before reaching the president, if it ever does.

Second, a quarter to half of these layers are filled by political appointees, each of whom must go through an agonizing approval process. The clearance forms have never been more complex, repetitive or invasive, and the vetting process never more cumbersome. For its part, the Senate has never been so obstinate. Even as health-care legislation is barreling forward, no one is heading the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Half of the Treasury Department's political appointees are still missing, and the director of the Transportation Security Administration is on hold because of Sen. Jim DeMint's opposition to any attempt to unionize the agency's workforce. Obama's government is not so much headless as neck-less.

Third, front-line government employees have expressed serious concerns about their jobs. Interviewed in mid-2008 by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, less than half of a random sample of federal employees said their agencies were able to recruit employees with the right skills, just over a third said promotions were based on merit, and even fewer said their agencies took steps to deal with poor performers. Most important in explaining the failure of imagination that appears to have contributed to the Christmas Day incident, just over half of the federal employees said their managers encouraged communication across work units, and less than 40 percent said that innovation and creativity were rewarded in their agencies.

Fourth, the federal government is increasingly dependent on a huge workforce of employees who operate in the shadows. According to estimates from Eagle Eye Publishers, prepared on my behalf, the number of federal contractors grew from an estimated 4.4 million in 1999 to more than 7.5 million by the end of the 2005 fiscal year. Given the continued rise in federal procurement spending, the number of contractors is almost certainly higher today. As the number of large contracts has increased and competition has declined, it has become nearly impossible to hold anyone accountable for what goes right or wrong.

Tinkering will not fix these problems. Congress and the president must embrace far-reaching reform in what government is asked to do and how it implements laws. The question is not whether government has an audacious agenda but whether it can convert great endeavors into achievement.

One thing is certain. Substantial reform will not happen until Congress and the president acknowledge that the Christmas Day plot is symptomatic of a much larger threat. They merely need to read the two national commission reports to start drafting legislation. Until that happens, the next failure is only a matter of time.

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

© 2010 The Washington Post Company