The sheer incompetence of government at all levels ought to be a generator not of sarcasm but of bipartisan consensus and cooperation. If there’s anything America’s fractured polity should agree on, it’s that, whatever the size and scope, public activity ought to achieve its stated goals and produce maximum value for the dollars it consumes.
Instead, good government is an orphan issue. Executive branch leaders who could make effective service a priority usually pay it little attention. Legislators empowered to oversee executive performance are more likely to reward failure, by protecting the funding of plainly unsuccessful programs, than to demand an increase in the programs’ effectiveness.
In the abstract, one would expect the opposite. Proponents of larger, more expansive government might be expected to be the most insistent voices for competent delivery of the services they were so eager to provide. Advocates of more limited government would scrutinize each dollar spent and criticize each shortcoming aggressively. Both camps would place the burden of proof on the activity in question.
Of course, that’s not what happens. Democrats pretend that even the most obvious fiascoes are fine, just fine, and any exposure of their shortcomings equals a heartless lack of “care” for their intended purpose. Republicans celebrate the failures in “I told you so” mode but rarely expend effort trying to find better ways to attain worthy public objectives.
Why is government so generally hapless, and why is there so little interest in fixing it?
Most people come to elected office with little or no experience — and too often no particular interest — in actually managing anything for real-world results. They are likely to surround themselves with people similarly unprepared: lawyers, PR experts, campaign operatives.
When the politician is in office, or pursuing it, the incentives are, if anything, negative. Candidates are rewarded electorally for rolling out shiny new models, not cogent ideas about how to operate the old clunkers already in the garage. No one organizes marches on Washington to demand faster permitting times or job-training programs that actually place people in lasting jobs. More money for the flops we have now, sure, but not better performance or accountability for those in charge of them.
In 2001, a naive crew of which I was a part inaugurated a systematic evaluation, by the Office of Management and Budget, of every discrete program in the federal government. Over five years, each of more than a thousand activities was rated based on objective measurements, with the findings duly reflected in President George W. Bush’s budgets and in reports to Congress.
Many of the programs — the National Weather Service and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for
Women, Infants and Children
come to mind — showed clear goals and excellent effectiveness in meeting them. Many, many others merited a failing grade. The aspiration was that Congress would reinforce those programs with proven results, and reform, reduce or terminate those without them.
We should have saved our time and the government’s money. If even a single change was imposed on the scores of failures, I must have missed it.
The saddest consequence of inept, indifferent government isn’t even the dollars it wastes, it’s the cynicism it fosters. Viable self-governance depends on at least a modicum of public confidence in institutions. Chronically lousy service undermines such confidence.
In another job I had, as governor of Indiana, I set out with colleagues in state government to instill genuine effectiveness in public administration in agencies large and small. The techniques were simple but not easy to implement: rigorously measuring outcomes, liberating managers from paralyzing labor agreements and archaic civil service laws, and recognizing and rewarding the success of individual workers and units. Eight years later, taxpayers received refunds in days, not months; citizens were in and out of Bureau of Motor Vehicles
branches in 10 minutes; and polls showed public confidence in the efficiency of state government at 77 percent.
Some believe that the United States is past the point where any incremental government reforms can matter. One of the most insightful thinkers on these topics, Philip K. Howard, argues persuasively in “Try Common Sense,” published this year, that nothing will suffice short of replacing today’s entire rules-based, hyper-prescriptive, compliance-obsessed edifice with a radically simplified system based on individual judgment under strong oversight. I wish him well. But I’m doubtful that such ideas will find vigorous sponsorship. After all (like, I’m afraid, this column), the whole subject of good government is just so . . . boring.