It’s Not Your Imagination: The Government Really Is Worse Than Ever
Policy + Politics

It’s Not Your Imagination: The Government Really Is Worse Than Ever

Puck/Library of Congress

Ever get the feeling the government is getting worse and worse at doing its job? Well, according to veteran public policy scholar Paul Light, you’re right. 

Light, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington and a professor of Public Service at New York University, released a study of major government failures on Monday – everything from the botched rollout of Obamacare’s health care exchanges to the failed response to Hurricane Katrina – and found that failures are increasingly frequent. 

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Using data drawn from news archives, Light identified government failures dating back to 1986 and found that major problems occurred at a rate 1.6 per year until 2001 – nearly doubling in the years afterward, to 3.0. 

It appears to be getting even worse. President Obama may have had fewer major failures than his immediate predecessors have, but as Light points out, his second term isn’t over yet. “At its current pace, government still has plenty of time to set a record average before Obama leaves office in 2017.”

The purpose of Light’s paper was to identify the causes of major government failures and try to isolate what can be learned from them. His conclusion: The largest contributor is poor policy, which he treats as an umbrella for tasks that are too difficult to begin with, too poorly designed, or are assigned to an agency already too damaged to see the policy through. The second largest contributor, he found, was inadequate resourcing, another umbrella category that included insufficient funding, inadequate staffing, or a lack of collateral capacity such as information technology. 

The element of Light’s paper that’s getting the most attention, though, is his conclusion about why government failures are becoming more common – and he points fingers at both sides of the aisle. It boils down to Democrats being too timid to stand up for their beliefs and Republicans being willing to vandalize federal programs in service of an ideology that believes smaller government is better government. 

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“Democrats did their best to ignore the slow decimation of government capacity, and refused to embrace the need for bold thinking on how to improve its performance,” Light writes. “Time and again, Democrats allowed Republicans and the Tea Party to undermine the bureaucracy, and brought little to the fight.” 

On the other side of the aisle, he says, “Republicans exploited the Democratic cowardice by doing everything in their power to undermine performance. They stonewalled needed policy changes, and made implementation of new programs as difficult as possible; they cut budgets, staffs, and collateral capacity to a minimum, proving the adage that the logical extension of doing more with less is doing everything with nothing; they used the presidential appointments process to decapitate key agencies, and appointed more than their share of unqualified executives; and they muddied mission, tolerated unethical conduct, and gamed the performance measure process to guarantee failing scores for as many government policies as possible.” 

Conservatives, not surprisingly, bristled at the charge that the Republican Party has actively worked to undermine the functioning of the U.S. government. 

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“All I’m hearing is a list of assertions,” said John Makin, a resident scholar with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “I think the notion that opposing the expansion of government authority is an evil thing to do prejudges the outcome.” For instance, if Republicans reject funding for a program favored by Democrats, one can’t assume that had the program been funded, it would have worked as intended. 

David B. Muhlhausen, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, also pushed back against the idea that Republicans are throwing sand in the gears of government – and challenged Light’s selection of examples. “He’s ignoring the many failures of the welfare state,” Muhlhausen said. “He basically excludes all the social programs that the federal government runs.” He said that many, such as federal job training programs, “have been evaluated multiple times over the years and found ineffective.” 

John Palguta, vice president of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan organization, said that while the issue may be complex, Light might have a point about Republican resistance to a smoothly functioning government. 

“I think there is some basis to that, though in my observation it is more tailored to the program,” he said. “I don’t think Republicans are looking to have the Department of Defense fail. But the Affordable Care Act? Yeah.” 

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Republicans in general, said Palguta, often run for election in large part on their opposition to government programs. Expecting them to become cheerleaders for them once they get to D.C. isn’t realistic. 

However, Palguta added, “There’s a fine line between pointing out where [programs] are not doing well, and aiding and abetting their not doing well.” 

“I don’t think most people up on Capitol Hill think of it as aiding and abetting failure – but not cooperating can be obstructing,” he said. “I’m inclined to say he’s onto something here.” 

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