Pitfalls of Managing the Federal Government

As noted in Paul Glastris’ Editor’s Note for the January/February issue of the Washington Monthly, no project is more overdue than a progressive recommitment to government reform, a task left to conservatives only at great national peril. Elsewhere in the new issue, the former Dean of the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, Donald Kettl, gives a glimpse of the obstacles and opportunities involving government reform, in an imaginary memo to the 45th president of the United States offering ten insights (or “secret truths”) about government incompetence that can undo the best aspirations of any administration.

You should read the whole fascinating “memo.” But I’d mention a couple of meta-lessons Kettl offers. One is that perceptions of incompetence can matter as much as real incompetence. He cites the “insane,” Katrina-like media coverage of the federal government’s handling of the Ebola outbreak–subsequently shown to be a success–as an example. Another is that the very structure of the federal government, often embedded in the congressional legislation creating and guiding programs and agencies, can contain administrative time-bombs, such as too few “Washington bureaucrats” supervising too many contract employees. And still another is the recent emergence of conservative efforts to “reduce the size of government” via deliberate sabotage rather than honest restructuring proposals:

An especially cynical strategy has emerged in recent years. Antigovernment forces have consciously tried to sabotage government—by shutting it down, slashing the budget, and attacking bureaucrats—with the clear goal of undermining the president’s ability to manage. If opponents can’t eliminate the programs they oppose, they can starve and cripple them. Failures then inevitably crop up. The news cycle doesn’t differentiate between problems that are consequential and those that aren’t. What matters is creating a drumbeat of a gang that can’t shoot straight, and finding new stories to reload the ammo as the old tales fade away. Doing the public’s business gets lost in the battle of driving the other guy out of town. The Constitution anticipated one way to deal with the core questions about government, of course: if you don’t like a law, change or repeal it. In gridlocked Washington, however, it’s too hard to do that (or much of anything else). It’s much easier to sabotage government’s long-term operations for short-term political purposes.

Kettl concludes with an interesting proposal to deal with the accountability problem whereby Congress screws up government and then blames it on the executive branch:

The political rule in Washington is that whatever goes wrong in the bureaucracy is the president’s fault, even if so many problems flow from Capitol Hill. For your sake and the country’s, this misperception needs to be shattered, and you can strike a blow for sanity right away. At your first State of the Union address, announce that you will submit a sweeping plan to fix the big problems in law that cripple the federal government’s management and performance. Tell the assembled lawmakers that if they fail to act on these proposals and screw-ups arise, you know you will be held responsible, and that’s part of your job. But this time, tell them, Congress will share the blame. The point here is not to duck responsibility but to create joint accountability. Fixing a federal bureaucracy as big and complex as ours is not something any president can do alone. You need Congress’s help, and Congress needs political incentives to care. Create those incentives, and great things could happen.

When good management isn’t enough, a little political theater can go a long way.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.