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Fixing a failing government

GUEST COLUMN

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Lee H. 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.

There’s ample cause for concern. The VA appointments scandal; the botched launch of the Affordable Care Act; the 28 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....there’s a long and dispiriting list of occasions when the federal government has fallen short.

The issues surrounding government performance don’t stir the passions. Progress comes slowly, the media’s not especially interested in the tedious story of building competence, and politicians want to make grand proposals, not spend their time digging into the nuts and bolts of fixing bureaucracies.

Moreover, as political scientist Paul C. Light has amply demonstrated, 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 were fine, but the resources necessary to implement them were inadequate or misused.

Politics often gets in the way of good policy, with efforts to undermine programs by making their implementation difficult or by cutting staffs and budgets.

Still, these are challenges, not barriers. If our political leaders wanted to focus on improving government management and policy implementation, there’s no shortage of fixes they could make.

  • They could ensure that federal agencies use pilot and trial programs much more frequently than they do now.
  • They could mandate better and more rigorous evaluation procedures and the use of metrics that lay bare what works and what doesn’t.
  • They could avoid rushing to announce programs, strive to get it right rather then get it quickly, and pay as much attention to follow-through as to the launch.
  • They could devote far more attention to how government will recruit, retain and train the smart, highly qualified workers we need to carry out ever-more-complex programs.
  • They could flatten the chain of command and reduce the layers of bureaucracy within federal departments and agencies.

All of us want government to fail less often, whatever our political stripe.

So here’s my suggestion: as election season approaches, insist that your favored candidate work harder on making government more effective and efficient.

‑ Lee H. Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University.

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