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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 John Pearson
October 23, 2015
The American Customer Satisfaction Index puts local and federal agencies below all major private sector categories in customer satisfaction and the recent trend has been downward. If you listen to oversight hearings, sometimes it seems legislators are simply exasperated with poor government performance. The inflexibility of the product line at government agencies, combined with the overwhelming number of legislative requirements, is often the key factor in poor performance.
A government agency must carry out or attempt to carry out every single sentence of every law that is assigned to it. In addition, a government agency must carry out all laws that apply generally to government agencies. If you doubt that every sentence of legislation matters, look at the recent Supreme Court decision on “Obamacare” (King v. Burwell), which addressed a challenge to the implementation of one sentence of ““Obamacare.” Also, consider the recent controversy regarding section 501(c)(4) of the tax code. There are allegations the IRS mishandled the two sentences in this section. Note the IRS does not have the option of just ignoring section 501(c)(4) because it is difficult and complex.
The situation in private organizations is entirely different. Apple Corporation, for example, can choose to offer a watch or not offer a watch. It has complete control of its product line—the big things and the little things. The same is true for Wal-Mart and any other business or even a nonprofit organization. I recently complained to the headquarters of a national restaurant chain that they had deleted my favorite item on the menu. The company thanked me for my feedback and observed that they periodically review their menu offering. Government agencies cannot make comparable decisions regarding their product lines.
Poor performance in private organizations will usually lead to losses. If this occurs, a private organization will try mightily to restore profitability. It will drop troublesome products and services. It will take other actions including downsizing, merging, shifting resources, cost cutting and asset sales. By contrast, government agencies cannot drop costly and difficult services that are required by law. They also cannot easily make other adjustments private organizations might make.
Ultimately, if a private organization cannot restore profitability, it will start consuming its capital and be forced out of business. This does not happen with government agencies. If there is a mismatch of revenues and costs, the government agency continues to plod along, providing whatever level of service it can. Severe, ongoing backlogs may occur. Quality and customer service may stay at low levels for a long time.
The normal budget process does not ensure agencies receive adequate resources. Agencies may not know what they need in the first place. Even if an agency knew exactly what to ask for, the president, governor or mayor may not allow the agency’s request to go forward to the legislature. If the agency’s request does go forward, the legislature won’t necessarily grant the requested amount because of budgetary constraints.
Government programs created by legislatures tend to be complex, difficult or both. However, the problem for government agencies is not just the complexity and difficulty of their own programs. Government agencies also have their own regulatory burdens beyond those that affect private organizations. Here are a few examples of these extra requirements at the federal level:
In addition, federal agencies labor under exceptionally complex personnel and contracting rules, which make these activities more difficult and costly than for private organizations.
Finally, private organizations complain of overregulation. Yet many of the regulations about which they complain also apply to government agencies. For example, government agencies are subject to rules concerning equal employment opportunity, the rights of the disabled, the environment, workplace safety, labor-management relations, retirement plans and wage and hour issues.
There is literally no free lunch. Each requirement of each law adds to the cost of doing business for government agencies. Each individual Freedom of Information Act request burns staff hours. Each request for approval to collect information under the Paperwork Reduction Act burns staff hours. It’s the cumulative effect of all requirements that bear down on the agency and tip the balance, causing chronically unsatisfactory performance.
I am not saying inefficiency or misconduct are not causes of poor government performance in some cases. I am suggesting the root cause of government performance problems is often that legislatures overload government agencies with requirements they cannot escape. Legislatures have some options for this situation: (1) reduce the number of requirements on the agency (i.e., simplify the laws); (2) increase the agency’s budget or (3) do nothing and hope demand for services will decrease or the agency will achieve efficiencies on its own that will improve performance.
Author: John Pearson recently retired from a lengthy career in the federal government where he was a program analyst. He has an MPA and a bachelor’s degree in economics. He now writes columns reflecting on his experience in government. His email is [email protected].