Sunday, August 24, 2008

A Government Ill Executed - For the Public Benefit

(This is an installment in an ongoing series of Paul Light's new book, A Government Ill Executed)

The first characteristic of an "energetic federal service" regards its missions, namely that they be "extensive and arduous enterprises for the public benefit," according to Hamilton. Or, as Light puts it succinctly, "missions that matter."

The reasons for this are several. First, we only have so many resources. If we try to too much we risk underfunding vital missions, leading to failure. Next, we cause dismay and lower morale among the federal work force when we keep adding to their current job without increasing the resources. He cites what has happened to domestic agencies since 9/11:
9/11 may have created a greater sense of purpose at the federal departments and agencies such as Defense and State involved in the new war on terrorism. But it may have diluted a greater sense of purpose at other[s]...(such as Agriculture, Education, Housing, etc.)
If this is the case, it reflects a failure among the leadership of these agencies to retool themselves to ask how they can remain relevant in a time when combating terrorism is among the nation's highest priorities? Perhaps Agriculture could get rid of its extracurriculars (it runs a giant adult education program for those lucky enough to live in Washington, DC and enjoy cut rate college type classes) and plowed its resources into creating a world class system for ensuring the safety of our food supply?

What follows in this chapter is a lengthy analysis of those tasks undertaken by the federal government since World War II - a "top fifty" of the government's "greatest" endeavors. They range from advancing human rights, to educating and training veterans, consumer protecting, expanding home ownership, protecting the right to vote, etc. The list, Light notes, grows but as it does old items do not get pushed off. Instead, they merely become underfunded, leaving underinspired federal employees to manage them in addition to the new flavor of the month.

Light calls on the government to decide which missions truly matter. To aid him, he has polled a large cadre of political scientists to evaluate the top fifty in each of the following categories: (1) importance, (2) difficulty, and (3) success (he acknowledges the many biases such a system will have).

Among the most important missions identified were expanding voting rights, rebuilding Europe after World War II and increasing low income families access to health care. The most difficult were identified as advancing human rights, arms control, and fighting work place discrimination. The most successful were rebuilding Europe, expanding voting rights strengthening our nation's highway system.

There's certainly a lot to disagree with in the list, but one thing that struck me is this: two of the most important were also two of the most successful - when this country really wants to get something done, it generally can (expanding health care, however, comes near last in success).

Light's essential point in this chapter is that government really needs to focus on high impact missions - those of most importance. Arguably, however, this needs to be done at the expense of lesser important programs. His survey reveals the following the be among the least important missions:

-Controlling immigration;
-increasing market competition; and
-devolving responsibility to the states.


Here we see the bias Light was talking about among the academics Light polled. Clearly, immigration is not among the least important issues given all the political heat that exists around it. Had Light polled economists, they would have been able to explain how increasing market competition has led to power prices and more public welfare than many if not all government programs.

This leads us to another conclusion: there's no good consensus in many cases on what government should be doing. This is important because administration come and go. Control of Congress can change hands, or at least Congressional Committee heads change, which can mean different priorities. The programs we're most concerned about, however, require steady attention, oversight and funding. Without consensus, this won't happen for a sustained period long enough to see them through to successful completion.

It seems to me that we should begin talking about a framework to determine what is truly important for the federal government to do. In addition to asking what the impact of the mission is on the nation's citizens, there are a few other questions that I think need to be asked. First, what among those high impact missions can ONLY the federal government accomplish as opposed to the private sector or NGOs or state and local governments. Next, on which missions is there the necessary consensus along the political spectrum to ensure that they are adequately funded year in and year out rather than waxing or waning depending on who is in power?

Here's my takeaway from this first chapter:

When we can focus the federal government on those missions we can all (read: mostly all) agree that most impact our lives and that only it can perform, we'll be on our way to a government well executed.

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