Whoever wins next November’s presidential election, it’s a sure bet that at some point he or she will vow to set the federal government on the straight and narrow. Maybe the new President will even resort to the time-honored pledge to create a government “as good as the people.” It’s a bracing sentiment. But you’ll want to take it with a grain of salt.
Our history is filled with remarkable government accomplishments. Our involvement in World War II and hands-on approach to the postwar reconstruction of Europe and Japan, our role in ending the Cold War, the interstate highway system, extending the right to vote to all our citizens, federal research and support for ending diseases such as polio… There’s a long list of crucially important efforts the federal government has executed well.
Yet every American ought also to be alarmed by an expanding list of missteps and blunders. In a report last month for the highly capable and too-little-noticed Volcker Alliance — whose goal is to improve government effectiveness — NYU Professor Paul C. Light drew attention to what he calls “a shocking acceleration in the federal government’s production of highly visible mistakes, miscalculations, and maladministration.” He went on to say, “[T]he aging bureaucracy can no longer guarantee faithful execution of all the laws, and it has become increasingly unpredictable in where and how it will err.”
A moment’s reflection will call to mind a sobering litany of failures: the inability to stop the 9/11 attacks; the confused, inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina; the even more confused response to the 2008 financial collapse; shortfalls in the care of our veterans; bridge collapses, mining accidents, and other failures caused by inadequate funding for inspection and regulation; the breaches in White House security; the fact that we’ve now been fighting a war on terror for nearly 15 years with no end in sight… It’s enough to make the staunchest champion of government action lose hope.
These failures can occur for many reasons: muddled policy, insufficient resources, poor organization, lack of leadership, lack of skills, sometimes even outright misconduct. The question isn’t really what or who is to blame. It’s how we turn things around and reverse the accelerating pace of breakdowns.
To start, the executive and the legislative branches need to focus on the implementation of policy. A lot of hard work goes into its creation, both on Capitol Hill and in the agencies, but the sad truth is that much less attention goes to how it’s going to be carried out. This is largely in the hands of the President, but Congress has a crucial role to play both in crafting the law to account for how it will be implemented, and then in pursuing oversight afterward. Both branches need to pay attention to how they will assess effectiveness, anticipate problems, make sure that staffing is adequate, and provide necessary resources.
Second, if making policy today is complicated, so is implementing it. This means that we need skillful people within the government to carry it out. Let’s be blunt. You don’t want a second-rate lawyer negotiating arms control or trade agreements. You don’t want third-rate scientists defining drinking-water requirements. Getting things right means hiring good people, retaining them, and then making sure they’re held to account with well-conceived metrics.
Finally, we have to put an end to the politics that so often stymies policy. Too often these days, the losers of a policy debate immediately turn to torpedoing it. They block the filling of key positions, cut funding, twist the objectives, or impose hiring freezes. They block policy changes that would improve implementation, put unqualified executives in control, or tolerate misconduct and confusion. Some government failures aren’t the result of muddled policy, lack of leadership, or incompetence; they’re the result of what amounts to calculated sabotage.
Most Americans want government to work well. We want it to enhance the quality of our lives and our communities. Arguments over the appropriate size of government are important, but that’s not the issue here. The issue is that when a policy is adopted, it needs to be executed effectively. Whoever our next President turns out to be, let’s hope he or she takes that charge seriously.
Lee Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.