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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.
By Larry Keeton
March 17, 2017
In 1776, our forefathers, disgruntled over treatment by England, sought independence. During the Gilded Age of our history (1877-1910), there was a realignment between capital and labor, the beginnings of a middle class and a reformation movement in government. Are conditions ripe for a third revolution that will radically realign our governance structure?
Since June 2005, Americans have consistency disapproved of the nation’s direction by 60 percent or higher. Neither the Republican nor Democratic parties have satisfied American discontent. Compromise at the Federal and state level of government is a lost art, more viable at the local level.
When questioned in September 2016, Gallup found Americans trust in the federal government to do the right thing in international affairs was 49 percent and in domestic affairs was 44 percent. Of the three branches of government, the Judiciary had the highest trust factor at 61 percent, followed by the Executive at 51 percent and the Legislative branch at 35 percent. In 2013, the Federal bureaucracy had a trust rating of 52 percent. Trust in state governments to do the right thing ranked 61 percent while local governments led the way at 71 percent.
The American Satisfaction Index started measuring customer satisfaction in twelve sectors beginning in 1994. Public Administration/Government continually ranks at the bottom with scores in the 60s, though it reached 70 in 2016. Sadly, the survey does not break down satisfaction by levels of government.
Perhaps citizen angst with the Federal government is due to the fact they don’t deal with federal employees, but with proxies. John J. DiIulio, Jr.’s Bring Back the Bureaucrats: Why More Federal Workers Will Lead to Better (and Smaller) Government (2015) argues our proxy government of contracting with state and local governments, the private sector and nonprofits has dramatically increased the chance of fraud and corruption while diffusing any accountability for performance. The Federal bureaucracy employs 2 million people at an annual cost of $250 billion. Conversely, federal contracts with proxies (state and local government, the private sector and nonprofits) accounts for over a $1 trillion.
If one thinks these proxies are more efficient, consider the impacts of workforce engagement in doing the job. Employee engagement reflects the commitment an individual has to their organization. The higher the engagement factor, the better the organization functions in meeting its mission in cost saving ways. Gallup surveys point to a nearly 70 percent disengagement factor in the private sector which costs the American economy over $450 to 550 billion in lost productivity. At the state and local government level, a similar disengagement factor costs those governments approximately $100 billion.
American fear of government misspending is proven in numerous General Accounting Office (GAO) reports. In 2014, $105 billion was improperly paid out for ineligible services or goods, or double billed, etc. by 18 agencies. Medicare fraud has plagued the nation for decades. It’s such a problem that the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Justice spend nearly $600 million in enforcement actions. Who sends in the invoices? Not Federal employees, but government proxies and private sector businesses performing the service. Reducing the workforce threatens further misspending.
Is the solution for returning trust in government found in cutting the workforce as both political parties have done since 1991? Or should the current administration seriously consider DiIulio’s recommendations and those of Donald Kettl?
First, bring back the Administrative Presidency: the nation’s CEO needs to pay attention to implementation details, as well as articulating policies. Second, hire one million more Federal full-time civil servants by 2035. In addition to keeping the citizen-federal employee ratio the same, more people can provide better oversight to effectively monitor, manage and measure proxy performance. Third, drain the for profit federal contracting swamps by instituting new contracting rules. For example, a federal contractor should not be allowed to lobby Congress in any way for any purpose related to their contract and fix award caps to the contract. Four, reexamine and restructure grant processes to nonprofits to include eliminating redundant monitoring by multiple government agencies and creating standardized and integrated reporting procedures. Fifth, reinvent the grants-in-aid program to state and local governments.
Donald F. Kettl’s Escaping Jurassic Government: How to Recover America’s Lost Commitment to Competence (2016) recognizes this proxy model but believed a leveraged government model can perform. But, this model requires four things:
Our governance structure needs disruptive innovation to be viable. The task is daunting, but not impossible. The post-Vietnam era military reinvented itself to become the nation’s most trusted institution. This Administration can restore the people’s trust by aggressively implementing DiIulio’s and Kettl’s proposals.
Author: Larry Keeton is a retired public administrator with over 44 years of successfully leading military and local government organizations ranging in size from 10 to 1300 people. He can be reached at [email protected].