Editorial: Make federal agency performance an issue

  • Updated: June 22, 2008 - 1:00 PM

Competence in government should be a bipartisan goal.

What's bugging the record-high 76 percent of Americans who, according to last week's AP-Ipsos poll, think their country is headed in the wrong direction? Bet their answers would include a litany of federal government failures -- a botched response to Hurricane Katrina, miscalculations about Iraq, inadequate policing of the nation's borders, negligent care of veterans, insufficient monitoring of food and drug safety, and on and on.

Those problems are daily grist for candidates in this year's election campaign. But all are symptoms of an underlying problem that gets comparatively little discussion: Federal agencies aren't working well. Something appears to be systemically wrong with the federal service.

That's the argument made by governance expert Paul C. Light in a new book that ought to be read by every candidate for federal office this year. "A Government Ill Executed," published last month by Harvard University Press, goes beyond the complaints to describe what's happened inside federal agencies to make them less effective.

Light, a South Dakota native and a former associate dean of the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota, is a professor at New York University, a Brookings Institution fellow and the author of 19 books. He brings Midwestern practicality and scholarly nonpartisanship to bear on his case that tinkering won't correct the problem. The federal service needs a major overhaul.

He argues that 30 years of "starve the beast" parsimony, mission creep, over-reliance on contractors and political meddling have created agencies that have too few workers on the front line and too many middle managers. Inspectors, nurses, translators, guards, auditors, border patrollers and the like -- all are in short supply. The result is diffused accountability, slow response time, inadequate resources and high turnover among people who do government's real work.

The expected retirement of more than half of federal employees in the next 10 years will give the next president a great opportunity to take corrective action, Light says. But, he asks, with two U.S. senators vying for the presidency this year, what are they waiting for? He recommends that John McCain and Barack Obama join forces this year to:

• Cut the number of presidential appointees in half, from about 3,000 to 1,500 (in 1960, there were 400).

• Create 100,000 more front-line positions as middle-management ranks shrink.

• Create a Spirit of Service Corps, offering college tuition breaks to young people who commit to a number of years of federal service.

Those steps alone won't reform government service, Light says, but they're the right start.

McCain and Obama may disagree on government's proper size and scope. But surely, they both favor competent government. They should tell Americans not only what they intend to do as president, but how they will make sure that the federal government is capable of delivering on their promises.

  • THICKENING MIDDLE

    "Between 1983 and 2003, the number of lower-level [federal] employees fell from 780,000 to 525,000, while the number of middle-level employees increased from 485,000 to 655,000."

    From "A Government Ill Executed: The Decline of the Federal Service, and How to Reverse It," by Paul C. Light, 2008.

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