Hamilton: Government isn’t working – but it could, if only …

Lee Hamilton

As election season approaches, I’ve been pondering a crucial issue about the role of government in our society. It’s that our government often fails – and that we need to address this. What’s odd is that while the frequent failures in government’s performance are very much on ordinary people’s minds, politicians don’t talk much about fixing them.

True, you might hear a few words about the issue while members of Congress are back in their districts, revving up their re-election campaigns during the August recess. For the most part, though, they are talking about issues like jobs and the economy – and that’s understandable because that’s what their constituents expect to hear about.

But it’s also a shame because we need a healthy dialogue focusing on why government often fails – and how to fix it. A long and dispiriting list of occasions when the federal government has fallen short provides ample cause for concern:

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• The VA appointments scandal. • The botched launch of the Affordable Care Act. • Twenty-eight years of missed inspections that led to the explosion of the fertilizer plant in West, Texas. • Scandals at the General Services Administration and the Secret Service. • A broken federal appointments process. • Regulatory failures that contributed to the Great Recession. • Bridge collapses and assorted infrastructure failures … and this list barely scratches the surface.

Yet the issues surrounding government performance don’t stir the people’s passions. Progress comes slowly, and the news media are not especially interested in the tedious story of building competence. Politicians look for home runs, not singles – for grand proposals, not nuts-and-bolts repairs to the inner workings of bureaucracies.

Besides, government failures happen for a long list of reasons that cannot be fixed easily, painlessly or quickly. Sometimes problems are rooted in policies that were ill-conceived, too complicated, or not well communicated. Sometimes the policies are fine, but the resources necessary to implement them are inadequate or misused. Politics often gets in the way of good policy: programs are undermined by making implementation too difficult or by cutting staffs and budgets. No matter how good a policy, if good people aren’t available to carry it out, it will fail.

Which points to another problem: Government has alarming difficulty attracting and keeping highly qualified administrators. Often, leaders are bored by the nitty-gritty of management and seek other opportunities.

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All that said, the obstacles to good government are challenges, not barriers. If our political leaders wanted to focus on improving government, there’s no shortage of fixes they could make. For example, they could: • Ensure that federal agencies use pilot and trial programs much more frequently than they do now. • Mandate better and more rigorous evaluation procedures and the use of metrics that lay bare what works and what doesn’t. There’s more attention being paid these days to efficacy than there used to be, but it’s still a trickle compared to what’s needed. • Avoid rushing to announce programs, aiming to get them right rather then get them quickly. The goal should be to pay as much attention to the follow-through as to the launch. In other words, think about long term, not the next election, and make sure the mission is sharply defined. • Devote far more attention to the process of recruiting, training and retaining the highly qualified workers needed to carry out increasingly complex programs. One way to do it: reduce the number of political appointees and fill positions on the basis of merit. • Flatten the chain of command and reduce the layers of bureaucracy within federal departments and agencies so that it’s easier for top administrators to see what’s taking place on the front lines.

As for Congress, it needs to ensure that vigorous oversight of programs becomes a habit, not the rarity it is now.

Whatever our political stripe, all of us want government to fail less often, So here’s my suggestion: As election season approaches, insist that your favored candidate work harder to make government more efficient and effective.

Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He represented Indiana’s 9th Congressional District as a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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