Americans get angry when they learn of government bureaucrats spending lavishly at a Las Vegas hotel or Secret Service agents consorting with prostitutes. As well they should. Such conduct wastes money and drains Americans’ respect for their government.
Washington’s routine for such embarrassing revelations is for executive and legislative officials to express shock, demand an investigation, and vow that such shenanigans will never happen again. A legislative tweak or two, some heightened oversight for the agencies in question, and then all is forgotten until the next scandal — which invariably comes along.
The problem with all this isn’t how we react to the occasional revelation of bureaucratic malfeasance. It’s how we don’t act the rest of the time.
Our government is so huge and unwieldy that only robust, continuing scrutiny — by Congress and from within each department — will keep it on course. Yet somehow we seem unable to rise to that challenge. The result is not just widespread distrust of government but, as NYU professor Paul C. Light — a leading expert on the federal bureaucracy — put it recently, “enough evidence imbedded in recent governmental breakdowns, ethical breaches and outright fraud to feed the distrust.”
Simply put, our government doesn’t work nearly as efficiently and effectively as it could, and Congress and top leaders in the bureaucracy bear direct responsibility.
Most federal employees behave professionally and appropriately; I do not believe that the lapses unveiled in the GSA or Secret Service scandals are common. Nor, however, is misconduct entirely exceptional — it happens much too frequently in government, even in the military: think of our soldiers in Afghanistan burning Korans.
How do we rebuild Americans’ trust that the federal government can get things right? Four changes are needed, each demanding that officials take much more seriously the duty of oversight.
First, Congress and the agencies themselves must not just react to misconduct after the fact, but be alert to its possibility in the first place: they should expect it will occur, search it out, and act to prevent it. Agencies need to do regular spot checks on what’s taking place in the ranks; inspectors general need the staff and resources to carry out their jobs effectively; and agencies must instill high standards of ethical and professional behavior. Congress’s job is to ensure that this framework is robust and effective.
Second, Congress must insist that top layers of the bureaucracy take ethics and efficacy seriously. This is not as easy as it sounds. For one thing, Cabinet secretaries and agency heads understandably want to focus their attention on policy. The secretary of state has world crises to attend to; the secretary of defense has wars to fight. Usually, they believe they don’t have time for organization and process.
And that is in part because infusing a culture of high ethical standards and ramrod efficiency is immensely difficult in the bloated managerial structure our leaders have allowed to grow. As Prof. Light put it in testimony to Congress in February, “There have never been more layers in government or more leaders per layer.”
Third, the civil service system needs overhauling. Performance ratings routinely get inflated, bonuses are passed out whether or not deserved, promotions are automatic, disciplinary actions are infrequent, few rewards exist for genuine excellence and even fewer penalties for shoddy performance.
Finally, huge problems are created by duplicate programs and overlap — there are 15 agencies assigned to food safety, for instance — along with wasteful spending, uncollected debts, unenforced rules and unmanageable programs. Congress bears heavy responsibility: it regularly enacts programs with competing or similar objectives, adding unneeded layers to an already unmanageable government structure. It’s time for concerted attention to the big picture.
There’s no question where this attention must come from: Congress and the White House. It’s popular to say these days that “government is the problem,” but it is equally true that only government can be the answer. No one else can fix it. It will take dogged effort and a willingness to delve into the unglamorous details of bureaucratic process. But until that happens, scandals and bumbling will continue to undermine Americans’ trust in their government.
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.