walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: February 5, 2013
What’s Wrong and How to Fix It, Part 9: Government Design

We need to institutionalize government design review and reform. This would have been a good idea in earlier times, but today and for the future it is essential.

If we can put some kind of a brake on the logic of collective action, and get the plutocrats and their rental of our Legislative Branch under reasonable control by rebalancing our federal system, we might then just be able to turn our attention to the details of good governance. Otherwise, the best ways to handle problems will be the ones least likely to be implemented, because inefficiency is after all a would-be rentier’s dream.

President Dwight David Eisenhower was the last President we had who really understood the interplay between governmental design and innovative policy development and execution. Possibly because of his military background and experience, Eisenhower understood that if you want new and innovative policies you are probably not going to get them without innovating the delivery systems of government itself. As we have already had recourse to mention, bureaucracies are conservative and limited systems; they are sometimes adept at doing what they were designed to do (and sometimes not), but they are very bad at shifting directions or innovating beyond their designed-in standard operating procedures.

Since the technological environment in which we live is constantly and ever more rapidly shifting, it stands to reason that we need to better institutionalize how we understand and adapt to these changes for how we operate government. But there is no existing means in the U.S. government for doing this, no mirror against which we can review the fit between the policy environment and the way we relate to it. If private businesses ignored design issues the way the U.S. Federal government has done, they would long since have gone broke.

Obviously, one can overdo it. It would be foolish to be constantly tinkering with governmental design because some basic stability is necessary to reliable function. It’s also disastrous to think that more centralization to fix the accretion of our incrementally built feudalized structures is always the way to go. But we have very much underdone it; legacy arrangements all over the Federal government and the U.S. Federal system itself have grown dysfunctional, if not in many cases completely obsolete, and we have essentially ignored the problem as it has grown. It would take an hour just to list the major examples, let alone describe and discuss them, so I will not do that here. Let me choose just one with which I have some personal experience.

The Hart-Rudman Commission, which set up shop in 1999 and reported out in March 2001, was charged with looking at the structure of U.S. foreign and national security policy in light of changes wrought by the end of the Cold War, among other influences. One of its many observations was that the border security agencies of the government—the Coast Guard, the Border Patrol, the Customs Service and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS)—were sited in an array of different Executive Branch departments, usually dwelling at the bottom of the intra-departmental budgetary food chain. Adding other relevant agencies with border security functions—the CDC, the Agriculture Department, the FDA, the FAA and others—a picture emerged of a fractured, expensive, unruly and almost completely ineffective system. The commission took testimony, for example, revealing that while the Border Patrol and the Customs Service used the same office building in Arizona and had responsibility for the same geographical area, the two organizations did not even have interoperable communications equipment.

Obviously, no one starting out to design a border security system would come up with a nutbag, Rube-Goldberg contraption like this. But that is the system we had on September 11, 2001, and, arguably, we paid in blood, more than 3,000 times that day, for our failure to review our design protocols and innovate past them. We have since changed all this, though not in the way the Hart-Rudman Commission advised. But there are plenty of other dysfunctional and obsolete legacy accretions that we have not changed, or not changed rationally and effectively. Many of the changes we have introduced have remained incremental and politically motivated in origin. They have usually made things worse, not better. A good if somewhat marginal example is the fact that we now have not one, not five, and not ten, but sixteen separate faucets that spill out aspects of foreign development assistance. As a result, what did we do once this problem was recognized?  Reform the system as a whole? No, at the end of the Bush 43 Administration we added an additional undersecretary to manage it all. Brilliant…. Failure to adapt and thoughtless dysfunctional adaptations together cost us plenty both in wasted effort and in opportunities for greater efficiencies forgone.

The U.S. government has all sorts of commissions and committees, some permanent, some functioning episodically, outside of the main line-bureaucracies of the Executive Branch. When it comes to science policy, we have experienced a range of designs. We used to have an Office of Technology Assessment. There used to be more active public-private science advisory committees than there are today. There is now a pressing and urgent need to revisit the nature of the science and technology advice the President and other cabinet officials receive. There is an even more pressing need to institutionalize a periodic scrubbing of Federal government design protocols to make sure they make sense.

As anyone familiar with the ways of Washington knows, the key barrier to such an innovation is Congress, with its jealous guarding of committee and subcommittee assignments and the power that goes with them. It is impossible to reorganize any part of the Executive Branch without also reorganizing the system of congressional oversight for it. Therefore, in order to institutionalize a periodic governance design review, Congress must be part of the process from the beginning—but not too much a part so that it bends the process toward yet another service rendered for its plutocratic paymasters.

Just how to create a sensible institutionalization of the government design process is a complex task, and what kind of budget authority and hence political clout to give it even more so. Various basic options are available.

First, we could create a new cabinet level department, into which the current Departments of Energy and Transportation would be folded, that would fuse engineering and bureaucratic aspects of innovation for government-wide diffusion, dealing with hardware as well as software innovation in an integrated fashion. Such a new department could also direct and manage in terms of overall budgetary function, but should not absorb, NIH, NIST, and all the national laboratories. It should not pick winners and losers in the form of a high-tech industrial policy, but it should do a functional national budget of what is being spend on science and technology and research and development, in both public and private sectors, to make sure no significant gaps go unrecognized. The government is spending less on R&D as a percentage of the whole than it did two and more decades ago, but the private sector has taken up the slack so that the overall level of S&T investment—still the highest in the world—has remained more or less constant. But the mix has shifted away from basic research and toward more commercial applications. This is not a trend we should want to see continue, but the government doesn’t really even know the numbers here sector by sector. This is a data base we need and ought to have—a new department could devise and manage that data base.

Or, instead, we could create a permanent interagency group under the President’s science adviser that would have a small permanent staff but only conduct executive reviews once every four or six or eight years—a little like the Quadrennial Defense Review, which is supposed to play a role in innovation review for the military (but, unfortunately, usually doesn’t). As already suggested, that interagency group would have to have both Congressional and some private-sector and university participation built into it, and if it is to look into the Federal structure writ large it would also need state and local government input.

Or we could adopt the ever popular but usually ineffective “czar” model, locating a czar for design review in the Executive Office of the President. Just as the Director for National Intelligence and the head of the Federal Reserve are supposed to be non-political appointees for a fixed term, an innovations/design czar could function in a similar manner.

But we need to do something, lest we continue to drift deaf, dumb and blind into a situation in which the way we do business is ever more misaligned with the realities government must address. If we do this right, we could expect significant beneficial results in the way we handle food safety, pharmaceutical research and approval, intelligence, homeland security, bioscience safety regulation and a great deal more besides.

Even more important, as suggested above, design reviews, by looking at the whole of American government, should not overlook opportunities to devolve an absentmindedly top-heavy Federal system back to the states in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity: It is usually easier, cheaper and more politically feasible to solve problems at the point closest to their origins. Just as high-paid private-sector executives do not grapple with issues solvable at lower levels, lest they be overwhelmed, so the Federal government should not be doing things that local and state governments can do for themselves.

But whatever we do has to start with a principled understanding of what government is and does, and with the basic insight that any such system needs periodic system maintenance—which is not the same as blinkered incremental tinkering—based on criteria as divorced from parochial politics as possible. We are now trying to manage a 21st century environment with accretions of 20th- and sometimes 19th-century tools. No wonder we’re having trouble.

Past Entries:

Part 1: Introduction, and Globalization/Automation

Part 2: Political/Institutional

Part 3: Corruption/Plutocracy

Part 4: Television and Politics

Part 5: The Financial System

Part 6: Tax Reform

Part 7: Health Care

Part 8: Repeal the 17th Amendment

show comments
  • Brendan Doran

    And if the function of the New Deal was administrative Paternalism with collectivist tools? And that is now in the hands of Radical Individualists – selfish?

    And the result is corruption?

    Now why do they simply give that up?

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