The fog of government: What to do about bureaucratic overlap
The Government Accountability Office just released a blockbuster report that may yet drive bureaucratic reform to the top of the budget-cutting agenda. The 345-page report is as dry as toast, but might just be the document to drive a real overhaul of the federal bureaucracy and produce a government that works better and costs less.
The report offers the first comprehensive analysis of the duplication and overlap across the federal budget I have ever seen. It's all been anecdotal up to this point, but GAO has the data: 80 programs for economic development; 100 programs for surface transportation; 7 departments and agencies working on U.S.-Mexican border water quality and 20 involved in managing federal cars, trucks and airplanes; two dozen presidential appointees running programs to prevent bioterrorism; the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives still working in separate silos on controlling explosives; 15 agencies assigned to food safety; 44 programs for employment and training programs; 54 programs for financial literacy; 82 programs for teacher quality; and 18 for food assistance. The list goes on and on.
"This report will make us look like jackasses," Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla) said in advance of the release. He was right. Working in their own antiquated silos, Congress has created a mess. Obama was undeniably funny in joking about salmon regulation in his State of the Union address, still the GAO report is anything but a joke. GAO didn't assign a total cost to the silliness, but it's got to be huge.
The duplication and overlap cost more than money. No wonder citizens are often confused about who's in charge, and who can be held accountable for what goes right or wrong. Presidential appointees are rarely fired for their role in major meltdowns such as last summer's egg recall; agencies are rarely disciplined or stripped of their responsibilities; and budgets are never cut.
So how did all this overlap come about in the first place? Turning back to Obama's salmon joke, all streams lead to Capitol Hill and the longstanding effort to take credit for launching new agencies and programs dealing with the problem du jour. Want some real duplication and overlap, not to mention antiquated organizations? Look at the congressional committee structure and the constant flow of lobbying money to prized slices of the budget.
Presidents are part of the problem too. Every program is assigned its own leaders and management layers. Presidents have never been more distant from the bottom of government where the goods are delivered; and, what's more, they have never had a political appointee they couldn't defend, even though the average appointee stays just 18 to 24 months.
Presidents have it wrong. Leadership isn't about the number of leaders who serve you. It is about clarity. War fighters constantly worry about the fog of war, but presidents operate in a fog of management where more leaders equals less leadership.
Congress may be the Constitution's confusers-in-chief, but presidents are supposed to faithfully execute the laws. As the Constitution's administrators-in-chief, they're the ones who are supposed to do the heavy lifting on making government work.
Every president since World War II has promised a government that works--Jimmy Carter even promised a government as good as the people. But it hasn't quite worked out that way. Except for Vice President Al Gore who stuck with his reinventing government for a solid eight years, most presidents have been too timid to take on the big-ticket issues.
Unfortunately, bureaucratic reform is the classic MEGO issue--my eyes glaze over. No one gets reelected for streamlining the bureaucracy, pushing resources and workers down to the bottom, or cutting the contract workforce down to size.
That's all beginning to change as budget hawks and doves alike see real savings through reform. It's high time. We've known for decades that this kind of diffusion costs money, if only through the wasteful administrative costs embedded in each duplicative program. We've also known that citizens are frustrated--how many phone calls do they need just to find the right program?
Obama promised an overhaul in last month's State of the Union Address, but he still doesn't get it. Treating the overlap is no doubt important and a big money saver, but it's only the symptom of a much larger problem.
Instead of defining overhaul as a few quick hits, perhaps it's time for Obama to visit the White House garage for a tutorial on what overhaul actually means--I rather suspect he has never done one. Webster's Dictionary defines it as "to renovate, remake, revise or renew thoroughly."
Congress and Obama should get moving--bureaucratic reform might just be the issue that prevents the shutdown now scheduled for the end of the month. By my own back-of-the-envelope calculation, we're talking about $1 trillion in potential savings. That ain't chicken feed, though Congress and Obama would be hard pressed to find out just which federal programs monitor that. Obama has to take the lead. Congress simply cannot do it on its own--that's how we got in this mess in the first place.
March 3, 2011; 9:22 AM ET |
Federal government leadership
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