February 24th, 2015
The federal government is a rudderless behemoth – a massive, $3.7 trillion a year enterprise that is struggling to come to grips with a fast changing society, mind-boggling innovations in technology and business practices, and growing public impatience with bureaucratic ineptness, waste and corruption.
Over the years, many have proposed changes to improve the quality of government, dating back to the Hoover Commission of 1947 appointed by President Harry Truman, and the Clinton-Gore “Partnership to Reinvent Government” begun in 1993.
Early in his first term, President George W. Bush unveiled an ambitious, market-based plan for overhauling the federal bureaucracy. Bush urged lawmakers and bureaucrats to rally round his proposal in order to maximize government services while reducing red tape, but he had only modest victories to show for his efforts.
President Obama took office in 2009 vowing to make it “cool” again to work for the federal government and to find ways to streamline the federal bureaucracy. Over the past year, the administration has been methodically benchmarking the efficiency of government departments and agencies in the areas of supply acquisitions, finance, information technology, personnel and property management. Obama can point to some successes in maximizing government performance and fostering cooperation among agencies, but the heart of his reforms have foundered on Capitol Hill—just like all the others.
While both the Bush and Obama administrations can rightly claim some administrative and governmental reforms, the first two years of President Obama’s final term have revealed just how much work remains. The country has been forced to endure an embarrassing parade of federal contracting, procurement and management misdeeds:
- Billions of dollars of waste, fraud and improper spending, especially at the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security—two agencies with two of the largest budgets.
- Renegade operations within the Internal Revenue Service to target Tea Party and other politically active groups.
- Outrageous management practices at Veterans Affairs Department medical centers, including forcing patients to wait weeks or even months for an appointment that cost some vets their lives.
- Poor overall monitoring of the performance of government workers and contractors.
- An appalling lack of competent in-house technological and IT savvy that could have saved the Obama administration from its humiliating on-line rollout of the Affordable Care Act in October 2013.
- And to top it off, let’s not forget the astonishing lapses of the Secret Service in protecting President Obama and the First Family, which could have resulted in a national disaster – more than once.
While not all of this can be laid at Obama’s doorstep, it remains his job to fix it.
“At the end of the day, I would say that while the management team that he has is working hard, insufficient emphasis is placed on improving the management operations of government,” said Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a preeminent research and advocacy group for the federal government. “Not enough is being done, and the president, I think, is ultimately responsible. The buck stops there.” Stier notes, the dysfunctional 113th Congress also bears much of the blame.
While not all of today's political problems can be laid at Obama’s doorstep, it remains his job to fix them.
“It’s by no means fully the responsibility of the president. Congress performs a critical function here and they are not behaving responsibly,” he said.
Wherever the blame lies, the problems are both real and, frankly, embarrassing.
Halfway through the second decade of the 21st Century, the U.S. government still relies on a personnel system designed in the years following the Civil War. Our regulatory agencies focus on punishing those who break rules, ignoring reams of modern research indicating that creating incentives for compliance is both more effective and cheaper. The inspectors general and auditors charged with keeping tabs on how government agencies manage their resources and spend their money are woefully underfunded, and often lack the authority to implement real change.
Moreover, Americans are strapped with technologically illiterate lawmakers setting information technology policies for a government that buys more computers and hardware than any other single entity on the planet. In the Pentagon, which spends more money every year than many medium-sized countries, unaccountable officers preside over a bureaucracy that has never in its history passed a financial audit.
Government reform typically gets short shrift or provokes yawns on Capitol Hill or along the campaign trail. Yet as the 2016 presidential campaign begins to heat up, Republican and Democratic aspirants may be pressed to explain how they would confront the enormous operational challenges that will greet any new president. Those range from the glaring problems with the VA and the Affordable Care Act to the troubled immigration system and border security to severe staffing shortages at the IRS that are hampering revenue collections and enforcement of the tax code.
“If you wait a year or two years into your term to figure out what you want to do on the management agenda, you’ve lost a considerable part of your runway for actually affecting real change,” said Stier. “We need to see administrations starting with clear management agendas in the same way they start with policy agendas.”
The only way to truly reengineer the federal government is to embrace a cold-eyed business model that places productivity and accountability at the top of the list. If government is truly interested in developing better ways of serving the country, eliminating waste and reducing the deficit, Washington politicians, policymakers, bureaucrats and public employees’ unions must somehow break free of their hidebound and self-defeating practices that reward stasis over progress and risk-taking. Instead of simply tweaking programs around the edges and rearranging boxes in government organizational charts – as Congress did in creating the ungainly Department of Homeland Security after 911 — what is needed is a massive shakeup and redefinition of the federal government that takes advantage of the best practices of the private sector.
Instead of harkening back to how former Vice President Al Gore and other politicians sought to “reinvent” government, leaders should be asking Jeff Bezos how best to deliver government services (maybe with drones); or Larry Page how to orchestrate a government IT revolution; or JetBlue’s David Barger or Elon Musk how to realign a sprawling and inefficient transportation and federal highway bureaucracy; or American Express how to keep hackers from stealing Social Security numbers from the IRS.
Push the Restart Button
To make government work in the 21st century, notes government management expert Eric Schnurer, requires the same basic “business plan” as in any other failing, but potentially still viable, enterprise:
- First, resize it to current realities — stop the bleeding, cut the fat, and get the existing operation on stable footing. Then, start thinking about the future — or, more accurately, the present that’s already arrived while the enterprise remained stuck in the past. This is by no means a hidden agenda for smaller government, but rather a call for smarter government that might include the creation of new agencies, new departments, and new initiatives.
- Redesign the business — its products, services, and organization — to meet current and future demand. You wouldn’t keep selling buggy whips if people wanted cars.
- Finally, redefine and reposition the enterprise to compete effectively against new competitors and in whole new markets.
The Fiscal Times has identified nine issues that require a 21st century reboot. Clearly, we are just touching a few key areas, but we believe these issues affect how many other areas of the federal government operate.
In the coming days, we will highlight those nine issues – including Obsolete Laws (cutting red tape); Technology (the dysfunctional IT system); Streamlining (redundant and obsolete programs and agencies); Competition (and contract negotiation); Personnel (performance and management); Government Oversight (auditing the books); and finally, the Budget Process (need we say more?).
We have also opened a special page for readers to add their voice – and their best ideas – to solving some of the problems we face. We plan to gather those ideas (you must sign in to post) and send them to Congress and the President. We need the help of every citizen journalist – and so does the United States Government.
Please join the conversation with your solutions in our forums.