Federal Coach

By Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service

Blog archive

Federal Coach: The deeprooted problems with government

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

Peter H. Schuck is the Simeon E. Baldwin Professor of Law Emeritus at Yale University and author of Why Government Fails So Often: And How It Can Do Better. In this interview, Schuck discusses some of the flaws of the federal system and offers advice on how to improve the operations of government.

What do you consider to be the systemic problems of the federal government?
One of the themes is the pervasive congressional influence over administration. There is a three-way free for all for influence over the bureaucracy — by the White House, by Congress and by outside interest groups. Another theme is legalism. Our public service is highly legalistic in its proliferation of rules. Some of that is good and inevitable, but some of it is pathological, animated by incentives for the bureaucrats to protect themselves and to conceal their discretion, so they can say, “I had to do this because the rule required me to.”

A third theme is uncertain leadership. The average tenure of political appointees is about two and a half years, and of course that’s a recipe for instability, for weak leadership and for a lack of direction.

What other issues have you identified?

Layering has become very extreme in the public service. During the last 40 or 50 years, the number of layers or ranks by title in the average Cabinet-level agency jumped from seven to 18. It’s an effort to gain political control of the bureaucracy, but it also has the effect of distancing the civil servants from the policymakers, isolating them from the policy decisions that they are going to implement. This layering is almost comical in the proliferation of titles.

What is your view of the increased use of contractors to perform government work?

That is the hidden government. It’s not hidden from people who are in the government, but it’s hidden from most Americans. The vast majority of people doing government work today are private contractors or grantees, and the federal bureaucracy’s control over them is both tenuous and problematic. The system for managing these contracts is often ineffective.

What changes are needed to reinvigorate the federal civil service?

Compensation at the high end should be increased substantially. The top leadership is underpaid, and this has really affected the morale of the senior service and made it more difficult to hire and retain top people. It also should be made relatively simple to fire people who are underperforming or to transfer or discipline them appropriately.

The layering of the bureaucratic hierarchy ought to be substantially reduced. And, something has to be done to improve the morale and the recruitment efforts of the federal service. One proposal by the Volcker Commission was to establish a national academy for recruiting and training.

How can federal leaders become better stewards of their programs?

Leaders can find out how well these programs are working. If programs are not working well, then they should be fundamentally changed or abandoned. That seems very elementary, but it’s not done. Less than one percent of our federal budget is devoted to figuring out whether the other 99 percent is doing what it’s supposed to do. Additionally, leaders need to understand what the people on the ground are doing so that they will know where the problems lie. That means getting out there and talking to people in an environment where operational employees are candid, unlike these prefabricated, staged visits that teach us nothing.

What else can federal leaders do to create a more productive culture?

Leaders are highly constrained, but they need to articulate a clear sense of mission — and try to break that mission down into measurable components, so that they and the people below them can be held accountable. Leaders must be very clear about what they expect, be realistic in their objectives and supply the resources necessary to implement them.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Nov 04, 2014 at 1:10 PM

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