The Hurdles to Success in Government

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.

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Thomas Augustine

The books written on this topic would probably reach higher than the Washington Monument if the paper versions were stacked atop each other. So I’ll comment on just one statement, “the hallmark of government effectiveness is cost effectiveness”. Really? I agree that this is consistent with my Engineering Economics class at UCLA a ….few years…ago, but does not reflect reality.

Let me take just one frequent case where this is certainly not true. The government frequently knowingly implements inefficient processes to avoid the appearance of fraud. At the Navy command where I work they greatly restricted the number of government credit card holders after there were news reports of employees purchasing personal items. First, unless the employee files for reimbursement (which was not usually the case) the government actually benefits from this by receiving the credit card rebate for items the employees paid for. And in the few instances where there was fraud the cost of centralizing the credit cards far exceeded the savings in fraud avoidance. However cost effectiveness was never really an issue. A Commanding Officer has never been relieved for being cost ineffective.

One more comment, frequently government decision making is not based on optimizing social utility but on minimizing social displeasure (the politically motivated minority effect). This also works against cost effectiveness, at least in a traditional NPV sense.

John Waid

An example: many years ago there was fiery truck crash at the popularly-named “MacArthur Maze,” the spot where three interstates come together and form one road into San Francisco, California. The Maze, the main entrance to San Francisco, was closed as a result. The governor, in order to speed work along, waived several hoops the contractors would ordinarily have had to jump through. The repair was done on time and under budget, about 30 days, with no problems in the structure. Proof positive in the public mind if any were needed that government mostly gets in the way of the people getting things done.

Sean McGowan

Unfortunately I did not find the keynote to be helpful. Professor Schuck is clearly well-qualified, but I felt like the talk was too short and broad to be much more than an advertisement for the book. I don’t think this was intentional, on his part or GovLoop’s, but he was given such a short time to cover such a breadth of topics that it was impossible to do justice to anything. As a result it seemed like he was skimming through the Table of Contents and quickly summarizing each chapter. Perhaps in the future speakers can be given a bit more time to develop their arguments.