Why government fails, and what we should do about it


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. What’s odd is that while the frequent failures in government’s performance are very much on ordinary people’s minds, politicians don’t talk much about fixing them.

True, you might hear a few words about the issue when members are back in their districts this month revving up their re-election campaigns, but for the most part they’ll be focused on issues like jobs and the economy. This is understandable, because that’s what their constituents expect to hear about.

But it’s also a shame, because we need a healthy dialogue about why government often fails and how to fix it. There’s ample cause for concern. The VA appointments scandal; the botched launch of the Affordable Care Act; duplicative programs to help low-income families; 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; a broken federal appointments process; the regulatory screwups that contributed to the Great Recession; auto recalls that should have happened much sooner than they did; the failure to prevent the 9/11 terrorist attacks by sharing information within government; bridge collapses and infrastructure failures…. There’s a long and dispiriting list of occasions when the federal government has fallen short.

Yet 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 themselves look for home runs, not singles. They 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.

There are organizational and institutional problems, poor oversight, poor leadership— no matter how good a policy, if good people aren’t available to carry it out, it will fail— and government’s alarming difficulty attracting and keeping highly qualified administrators. Often, leaders are bored by the nitty-gritty of management.

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. There’s more attention being paid these days to efficacy than there used to be, but it’s still a trickle compared to what’s needed.

—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. Think about long term, not the next election, and make sure the mission is sharply defined.

—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. And they could vow to reduce the number of political appointees in favor of filling most positions on the basis of merit.

—They should certainly flatten the chain of command and reduce the layers of bureaucracy within federal departments and agencies, so that it’s easier for top administrators to see what’s taking place on the front lines.

—In the case of Congress, it needs to ensure that vigorous oversight of programs becomes a habit, not the rarity it is now.

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 Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.