The federal government is failing now more than ever. That's the conclusion of a unique taxonomy of federal ball-dropping just released by Paul C. Light, a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Light analyzed 41 high-profile cases of federal failure from 2001 to the present day, culled from the Pew Research Center's News Interest Index. Because it's ultimately derived from news accounts, the contours of the list are roughly what you'd expect. It starts with the 9/11 terrorist attacks and ends - for now - with the VA waiting list debacle in Phoenix. In between it covers everything from the search for WMDs in Iraq to Hurricane Katrina to Operation Fast and Furious. You check out the full list in an interactive over at the Brookings website, or scroll to the bottom of this post.
As with any qualitative taxonomy, there's plenty of room quibble over which government mishaps made the cut and which didn't. For instance, last year's government shutdown, and the debt ceiling brinkmanship that led to the loss of S&P's AAA credit rating for U.S. debt in 2011, didn't make the cut. This is because Light focused only on "management/delivery failures by agencies. Some of these failures involved poorly crafted policy as a contributor, but failure had to come from the bureaucracy in some way." So business-as-usual gridlock in Congress doesn't make the cut.
Setting aside questions of inclusion/exclusion, Light's work is the only methodologically rigorous account of government failures we know of, so it's worth hearing what he has to say about these failures, what caused them, and how similar missteps can be avoided in the future.
Light breaks down the myriad factors that contribute to each of the failures he studies - bad policy, limited resources, and structural, leadership and cultural shortcomings. The study tracks the growing failure rate through the past five presidents. While many factors contribute to the generally increasing frequency of bureaucratic failures, the fluctuating numbers do reflect on an administration’s overall managerial competence. Light believes that Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush led especially competent White House teams. Reagan, his study shows, averaged 1.6 failures per year during the final part of his term.
On the other hand, George W. Bush's administration was the most failure-ridden of them all. W. averaged 3.1 failures per year - overseeing more than twice as many annual failures as his father.
Of course, by Light's account Obama isn't looking too hot either - he's currently running 2.9 failures per year, with a little over two years two go. "Good government is not just a function of good laws, it's also a function a faithful execution,” he said. In that area, President Obama does not get good grades. “Probably the lowest of any post-war president,” said Light in an interview. “I'd give him a C- on attentiveness, and a D on reform.”
In the report, Light writes that Obama promised reform and modernization but "he never followed through. He was either too distracted to concentrate, too bored by the nitty gritty of management or too frightened of the Republican backlash to make the effort needed to make big government work.”
He added that the grades could improve in Obama’s final two years if the president sought administrative reform and pressed Congress to give the next president more authority to take on improvements in governance.
Two factors complicate the failure rate under Obama. The first is that many of the missteps under Obama had their roots in the Bush administration. That administration "could have fixed the information technology systems that led to the healthcare.gov and veterans breakdowns, but didn't. They could have fixed the civil service system that led to the problems in the Secret Service and the General Services Administration, but didn't. And of course they could have fixed some of the policy problems that led to the 2008 financial collapse and the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion, but didn't."
The other factor is the level of fierce Congressional opposition Obama has faced in office. Light writes that political polarization is "a grand contributor" to the rise in government failure. But he notes that Democratic contributions mostly take the form of neglect and omission - they ignored "the slow decimation of government capacity, and refused to embrace the need for bold thinking on how to improve its performance."
Republican contributions to government failure, on the other hand, have been "very deliberate." Here Light minces no words, and its worth quoting him at length:
Republicans exploited the Democratic cowardice by doing everything in their power to undermine performance. They stonewalled needed policy changes, and made implementation of new programs as difficult as possible; they 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 used the presidential appointments process to decapitate key agencies, and appointed more than their share of unqualified executives; and they muddied mission, tolerated unethical conduct, and gamed the performance measure process to guarantee failing scores for as many government policies as possible.
In short, Light concludes that not only is political polarization "worse than it looks," it is also "more destructive than imagined. And it is becoming more threatening to government performance as the distance between the two parties increases."
Complete list of government failures, 2001-2014, ranked by overall news interest
* Subject of a historically significant congressional or presidential investigation; see Paul C. Light, Government by Investigation: Congress, Presidents, and the Search for Answers, 1945–2012 (Brookings/Governance, 2014), for the full list. The failed search for weapons of mass destruction and the Abu Ghraib prison abuse were both part of the long-running congressional and presidential investigation of Iraq War conduct, and are included here as separate investigations.
** This figure comes from the Center's May 12, 2004, survey showing that 87 percent of respondents were paying very or fairly close attention to the situation in Iraq, which followed the Center's May 9, 2004, survey showing that 92 percent of respondents had heard about reports of mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. troops, and 76 percent had seen photos from the incident. The proximity of the surveys strongly suggests that respondent interest in the situation in Iraq was heavily influenced by the Abu Ghraib story. Hence, I put the incident on my list in combination with allegations of prisoner abuse at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in 2005.