The two Pauls make a great team of opposites.
Here’s Paul Volcker, the former Federal Reserve chairman, taller than Kobe Bryant and heavy with gravitas.
There’s Paul Light, the spry professor of public service, armed with the wit of a television talk show host, no taller than Volcker’s shoulders.
They are like a straight-man-and-comic duo. Instead of laughs, however, they come bearing somber news about government, about “the cascade of breakdowns” that leaves the public ill-served.
That’s the thrust of Light’s 37-page paper presented Friday at a National Press Club event sponsored by the Volcker Alliance. The organization focuses on the implementation of public policy and was started by Volcker in 2013, the year he turned 86. Like a granddaddy of public policy, he has served Republican and Democratic presidents during almost three decades of federal work.
He pointed to one cause of government breakdowns by quoting a 1989 commission report he chaired. Volcker said the “erosion in the attractiveness of public service at all levels — most specifically in the federal civil service— undermines the ability of government to respond effectively to the needs and aspirations of the American people, and ultimately damages the democratic process itself.”
By Light’s count, there have been 48 federal agency breakdowns since 2000, from the deadly to the inconvenient, including the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the launch of healthcare.gov. In the report and the discussion, and during interviews with both men, they acknowledged government successes.
But by exposing “the embarrassingly long list of failures of execution,” Volcker said he hopes to “catalyze attention to what needs to be done to effectively implement” public policy. Light, a professor of public service at New York University with a long history of government scholarship, said the “breakdowns reveal the effects of recent disinvestment in government’s capacity to implement policy.”
One characteristic shared by the breakdowns is errors of omission instead of commission, according to Light.
“The federal government did not hijack the aircraft that killed so many Americans on September 11, 2001, but it did not imagine the possibility in time to prevent the tragedy,” he wrote. “The government did not breach the levees when Hurricane Katrina came ashore in 2005, but it did not have the leadership or plans in place to respond quickly.”
Casting a spear at both parties, Light’s calculations determined that the number of breakdowns has increased significantly over time. There have been more breakdowns under President Obama, who is on pace to set an unwanted record, than under George W. Bush, but not by much, 3.5 per year on average compared with 3.1 per year.
Light’s report said that “the blame for inaction falls on congressional Republicans and the president alike,” but aimed its most withering criticism at the GOP: “The Republicans have done everything in their power to undermine performance. They have never met a freeze or cut they could not embrace, they have repeatedly stonewalled needed policy changes, and they have made implementation of new programs as difficult as possible. The Republicans have cut budgets, staffs, and collateral capacity to a minimum, proving the adage that the logical extension of doing more with less is doing everything with nothing. They have used the presidential-appointments process to decapitate key agencies and have appointed more than their share of unqualified executives.”
Light said that “the new Republican majority allowed the once-proud” House Oversight and Government Reform Committee — once a “treasured source of reform legislation” under both parties — “to fall into disrepute as a playground for frivolous investigations and bureaucratic harassment.”
He argues that reforming government as a whole is the way to reduce breakdowns. “The time for tinkering on individual causes has long since passed,” he said.
Light and Volcker called for greater attention on turning policy into action. Just as the Congressional Budget Office estimates the cost of legislative proposals, bills also should have an “implementation assessment” to help guide execution of the laws. Greater funding and staffing for agencies would help prevent breakdowns, as would improved organizational culture, structure and planning. And the “M” in the Office of Management and Budget needs more muscle. Reducing the layers of the federal bureaucracy and overlap among agencies also would help.
“Everyone loves to discuss how big or small government should be,” Volcker said, “or what its strategy should be to reduce income inequality or defeat ISIS [the Islamic State militant group]. Those debates are important. Very important. But they’re also irrelevant if we can’t trust that government will actually be able to deliver on its strategic goals and implement the laws of the land. What we need is attention — much more attention — to the ‘nuts and bolts’ of management within the government. Without it, the fate of our great democracy is increasingly precarious.”