Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Why does government fail?

Paul C. Light of New York University, writing for the Volker Alliance, has a sobering review of 48 major government "breakdowns" [which he calls "failure to faithfully execute the laws" because of some type of bureaucratic failure] since 2000. Building on his long career of studying government organizations and personnel, he also notes that all but two of the federal government's top 25 achievements between 1945 and 1999 "were in peril by 2015."

Most of his breakdowns were the result of multiple causes. The most frequent were policy failures because of problems in the design or difficulty of the mission. Next most common were resources problems,usually underfunding or understaffing. Third most common were organizational culture problems. Fourth were failures from structure such as no clear chain of command or accountability or poor contract management. Fifth were leadership problems.

While Light blames President G. W. Bush and Obama for not pushing harder for general reorganization authority or specific program reforms, he levels a heavy attack on congressional Republicans.
The blame for inaction falls on congressional Republicans and the president alike. 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. Furthermore, they have muddied mission,
tolerated unethical conduct, and gamed the performance-measure process to guarantee failing
scores for a host of government policies that they oppose but cannot repeal through constitutional means. The repeal is de facto, not de jure—by practice, or the lack thereof, and not by law, or the lack thereof as well.
Light doubts that piecemeal reforms can make much difference. He favors comprehensive reforms that give greater attention to implementation of programs, not merely designing them, and to human capital factors like recruiting and retaining the broad range of people with needed skills.

We can't kill government; we need to save it.

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