As Congress considers pouring trillions of dollars into federal and state bureaucracies for a range of new social programs, we should ask: Will the money be well spent?
Recent events aren’t comforting.
Here’s one example: Hundreds of millions of dollars earmarked last year for pandemic rent assistance did not timely make it out of the door, according to an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and The Associated Press. Bureaucracies couldn’t handle the task; a project manager at Princeton’s Eviction Lab called the situation “mind-boggling.”
More outrageous is the recent story that $400 billion in unemployment benefits were stolen, some by street gangs and international crime syndicates. If this was a movie script, audiences would have had trouble believing the storyline was even possible.
Federal, state and local governments spend more than $10 trillion every year. This money — your money — often goes into broken bureaucracies.
Talk to anybody who has run a government agency and they’ll tell you that the civil service system is the biggest obstacle to efficient management of public agencies.
Civil service started as “good government” reform in 1883, with passage of the Pendleton Act, but it has since become an impediment to competent, nimble government. Waste and paralysis are institutionalized within the resin of its complicated rules. Red tape causes excessive delays; silly regulations undermine management flexibility.
The core concept of civil service was — and still is — a good one, and that’s the merit system of hiring, in which potential employees compete in a testing process open to all applicants. Taxpayers do not want unqualified people to get government jobs as political favors.
But while the aging heart of the merit system still beats, it has become diseased. “The framework of merit has corroded beyond recognition in many agencies,” says Philip Howard, author of “The Death of Common Sense” and leader of a national reform group that I advise.
“In many agencies,” says Howard, “public service is a brackish backwater, without pride or purpose. Potential recruits are repelled by the public work culture of agencies where responsibility involves mindless compliance, and the honor of public accomplishment is replaced by a preoccupation with personal entitlements.”
While private sector managers are able to respond to changing realities, managers of public agencies are not. This is as relevant to the Sewerage & Water Board in New Orleans as it is to the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington.
The best way to repair any bureaucracy — be it a sprawling department or a small, obscure program — is to streamline structure, improve performance and cut unnecessary costs. Unfortunately, civil service makes that nearly impossible.
The system is also unfair to government employees. It traps them in a Rube Goldberg-type apparatus that does not properly recognize or reward exemplary performance. It often treats slackers the same as stars. Government managers will tell you that a small portion of their employees carry the entire load; morale is damaged and undue burdens are placed on the most productive public servants.
What should be done?
For starters, simplify and modernize employee job and pay classifications. Public administrators need more management flexibility — and to be held strictly accountable for their actions.
One idea is to engage a volunteer corps of retired management professionals from the private and public sectors (without conflicts of interest) to independently evaluate each part of government and to make recommendations for reform. Then, give the executive branch the ability to implement these changes without needless barriers.
Elimination of agencies, programs and positions — going forward — should be based on sound management principles and reorganization plans, not rash budget-cutting. New hires should be based on merit and reflect each agency’s changing needs.
Of course, defenders of the status quo will tell you that none of this can be done. They will have a million reasons — and they will be wrong. It can be done. Moreover, it must be done.
It’s astonishing that civil service overhaul is rarely, if ever, discussed in political campaigns. If today’s Republicans really cared about big, bloated government, they would hit the issue hard. If Democrats really cared about activist government that’s efficient and effective, they would trumpet it, as well. But neither have.
Overhauling the civil service system won’t, by itself, drain the unfathomable swamp of government bureaucracy. But it will make doing so possible.
Ron Faucheux of New Orleans is a nonpartisan political analyst, pollster and publisher of LunchtimePolitics.com, a newsletter on polls.