To kick off today’s Government Innovator’s Virtual Summit, we heard from Peter H. Schuck, author of Why Government Fails So Often: And How it Can Do Better and the Simeon E. Baldwin Professor Emeritus of Law at Yale Law School. He gave us a wake up call about why it is so important to keep learning and innovating in government.
“I’ll start with the proposition that US has been most successful, diverse society in world history,” he said. “That’s the good news. The bad news is that we have a dismal opinion of the federal government performance and it’s only getting darker.”
That’s a problem, and Schuck is trying to solve it. He said there were a number of possible reasons for this public displeasure. For instance, it may be that American prosperity has heightened public expectations and demands to unrealistic leels. It may be the product of “alien forces” that derail Washington’s progress. Or it may be the result of a legislative process.
However, Schuck considers a harsher reality–that the federal government is actually ineffective.
Schuck says the hallmark of government effectiveness is cost effectiveness. “Any policy in order to be effective should produce more bang for the buck than an alternative,” he explained. Yet many barriers deter government from reaching the benchmark of efficacy.
Schuck’s book chronicles a number of these hurdles, including:
- Robust political culture that protects the pillars of our democracy but imposes serious constraints on effective governance
- Ineffective incentives for policy makers and private actors
- Collective irrationality and ignorance, fueled by low-quality information
- Disconnect between markets and policies
- Inadequate implementation of policies
- Organizational fraud and abuse
- Incredibility of government programs, due to constantly shifting policies and political parties
- Inappropriateness of civil service bureaucracy
Admittedly, that’s a long list, and it’s not exhaustive. Yet some government experiments overcome these many obstacles to achieve real success. Schuck mentioned the Homestead Act, the development of the NIH, the interstate highway system, the Foodstamp Program, and airline deregulation as just a few examples of successful initiatives.
So what’s the secret? Schuck proposed taking the best practices of these programs and using them to fuel reform and degrade the barriers mentioned above. For instance, he suggested encouraging more compromise and moderation in the congressional process to improve legislative processes and reach more salient solutions. He also impressed the need to execute more analyses of programs and use that data to enhance decision-making. And to overcome implementation failures, he suggested hiring more auditors, inspectors, and enforcement agents, as well as offering more diverse pathways for whistleblowers within government.
These are all long term strategies to overcome the hurdles of good governance, but what can civil servants do today? Schuck closed by encouraging the audience to, “Try to create an organizational environment that is open to fresh ideas.”
Today’s summit is focused on generating those fresh ideas and enabling civil servants to make government better.