The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After the mud wrestling, candidates must prepare to govern

President Obama with Bill Clinton and George W. Bush in 2010. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
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After the sometimes disgraceful Republican presidential primary season is done, Uncle Sam can shower and perhaps the remaining candidates will finally turn their attention to how they would govern.

Wiser heads have been trying to draw attention to this for months. They’ve been all but ignored while the political mud wrestling, led by Republican mogul Donald Trump, has commanded attention.

The candidates might not have focused, at least publicly, on the governing aspects of an administration change, but Congress and President Obama have. Last month, the president signed legislation calling for a White House transition coordinating council.

“This administration is committed to making sure that President Obama’s successor has the full cooperation of his staff in ensuring a smooth transition,” as was the administration of President George W. Bush, said White House press secretary Josh Earnest.

Seeking to encourage that, a roomful of thoughtful, good government types gathered Tuesday at the genteel University Club to discuss “Accountability in Government.”

It was as exciting as the name indicates, but more important.

“The most important takeaway is that a new administration doesn’t have to start from whole cloth in putting together its management agenda,” said Dan Blair, president and chief executive of the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA). “The foundation blocks for accountability are already in place, and the new administration can use those to advance its political agenda.” NAPA sponsored the forum along with the American University School of Public Affairs.

Accountability is a big deal in the federal government, even if that is not always evident. The Government Accountability Office produces an endless flow of thorough, nonpartisan reports on government programs. There are more than 70 inspectors general who closely examine individual agencies. Congress aggressively pursues its oversight role, particularly when the party in the White House differs from the party controlling Capitol Hill.

Barbara Romzek, the American University public affairs dean, defined accountability as “answerability for performance. If working properly, it should result in a reward and/or a sanction for the individual or agency.”

But it doesn’t always work properly, as many federal employees can attest.

“The dominant pattern in our political arena is to use accountability as a rhetorical weapon to bludgeon anyone or any agency when someone is unhappy with their performance,” Romzek said.

She lamented the “hot rhetoric” that often calls “for poorly reasoned, knee-jerk reactions and shortsighted solutions.” Trump, she said, “has taken us to a whole new level in the past few months, using scorching-hot rhetoric.”

As the U.S. comptroller general and GAO’s chief executive, Gene Dodaro has accumulated an abundance of information about government, much of which seems to reside in his head. In four critical high-risk areas — leveraging technology, managing finances, adapting to change and securing human talent — he said it is “very necessary for the government to improve its performance to strengthen accountability.”

All too common are the “consistent breakdowns” in information technology. “Too often,” Dodaro added, “these IT projects fail completely or are behind schedule, cost more than expected or offer little improvement in mission performance.”

Employees must perform those missions, and that brings up a serious problem.

“I’m very concerned about the state of the federal workforce,” Dodaro said, noting that about one-third of the workforce will be eligible to retire by 2019. In some agencies, that number is over 40 percent.

“There are a lot of critical skills shortages,” he said. “We have a lot of experienced people who are going to be departing. Government continues to have challenges in recruiting and retaining” staffers needed to ensure government is accountable.

Speaking of challenges, diversity is one facing organizers of sessions like this one. Very few African Americans or others of color participated.

Good-government types need to be held accountable, too.

Read more:

Why presidential candidates should be presumptuous

18 months before the vote, it’s not too early for candidates to prepare to govern