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Making Government Work Well


Obama made many mistakes in the rollout of his healthcare law, but one of the biggest may be that he overestimated the quality of our country’s public service system. As Frank Fukuyama notes elsewhere on the site, Obama turned responsibility for creating an extremely complicated website to a civil service that has been in decline since the mid-20th century and which was woefully unprepared to take on such a monstrous task with any efficiency:

What the contemporary civil service fails to do is to attract smart, highly qualified young people out of elite universities in the manner of the classic French, German, or British services.  In fact, the government is very good at putting a large number of obstacles in front of any ambitious young person who might want to sign up, like voluminous disclosure rules in the current employment regulations.  Recruitment and promotion end to value experience over capacity, and therefore reinforce a status-quo bias among federal employees.  What we end up with is a screwed-up set of incentives for federal workers that does not reward innovation, risk-taking, or high levels of qualification.  (This generalization of course varies across agencies; there are certain ones like the Federal Reserve or the Centers for Disease Control that are given the autonomy to control their own staff to a much greater extent.) […]

In the years since [the New Deal], Congress and the public sector unions have managed to re-politicize the civil service, not so much with patronage appointments, but with tenure rules, mandates for hiring particular types of workers, and other disincentives to recruiting and retaining high-quality employees.  For their part, federal workers sacrificed professionalism and pay in the name of job security.

This points to failure of both small and big government advocates to focus on something that should in fact appeal to both: making government more effective.

If you want a small government, making it more effective means you can get more done with fewer resources. If you believe in big government, you have an even larger stake in making government as lean and effective as possible to allow it to carry out the tasks you set for it and earn the trust of a skeptical public. As Frank points out, Obama has had a major meltdown because he didn’t understand the constraints that an ineffective bureaucracy placed on his signature initiative.

It would be interesting to see if there could be some bipartisan energy behind making government work, though it sounds as if vested interests would get in the way. Between affirmative minority and gender preferences on the left and affirmative action programs for disabled veterans on the right, we’ve been so focused on using government jobs as a solution to social ills that we’ve forgotten that the government actually needs, well, to get things done. And if affirmative action weren’t enough of a problem (on both sides of the ideological divide), union rules and seniority are also in the room.

Making government work better is going to be hard, but it is one of those problems that serious reformers need to have in their sights.

[George H. Pendleton image courtesy of Matthew Brady]

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  • theresanursemom

    Many on the left seem to grossly overestimate government’s ability to do things well, not unlike the stereotypical little guy who acts as if he’s ten feet tall and bulletproof after a few beers. The various complications of the government’s hiring and workplace practices cause the government to perform difficult tasks and meet complex challenges about as well as someone who’s drank to excess as well.

  • Pete

    Many of those in government employ are there as a make-work effort.

    There is really little interest in government for efficiency as efficiency means less jobs.

  • qet

    I think Via Meadia is unclear on the political economy of central governments. “Making government work” does not mean what Via Meadia thinks it means. Right now our central government works better than ever for the political constituencies for whom it is important to Congress and the President that it work.

    • Andrew Allison

      As in ACA????

  • Anthony

    In reading Quick Take, a lesson came to mind: we must face the fact that there are a good many things in our character and in our national life that are inimical to standards (complacency, allure of easy or fast money, willingness to tolerate incompetence protected by bias, etc.). Essentially, Francis Fukuyama in writing about principle/agent/organizational mission is explicating on the aims of a free people via its government obligations democratically structured and the hazards faced. “Keeping a free society free, vital and strong is no job for the half-educated and the slovenly.” At bottom, Fukuyama infers that talk about government is meaningless until we Americans apprehend its quality and purpose.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    As an advocate of small government, I want a government manned by the incompetent, it makes accumulating the political will to fire them all, much easier. That, and I believe that without the “feedback of competition”, any improvements will be temporary and the benefits very small. Making an Apple, or a Google, out of a government monopoly is impossible. So, the only way to reduce government inefficiency, is to limit the size of government, because all government is inefficient.

    • Andrew Allison

      “I want a government manned by the incompetent, it makes accumulating the political will to fire them all, much easier.” Really? Any examples to offer? How about some discussion of why government is inefficient and how to best deal with the unfortunate necessity of having it?

      I have several ideas: strict interpretation of the separation of powers, sunset on all regulations and zero-based budgeting might be be a good start.

  • lukelea

    re: “a civil service that has been in decline”

    How much is this due to restrictions on the use of rigorous civil service exams that have disparate impact on different racial groups? It is my understanding that such tests are no longer legal in private industry. If so it would be just one example of how denial of the facts of human diversity leads to bad public policy. And I mean bad for everybody, not just the ones who don’t get the job.

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