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Public Administration Capability not Declining

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By John Pearson
July 8, 2016

This column is in response to the March/April 2016 Public Administration Review (PAR) editorial that states, “Government has lost its capacity to execute public policies and implement programs.” To support this claim, the editorial cites a recent paper by Paul Light that lists 48 government “breakdowns” from 2000 to 2014.

In my view, many of these breakdowns simply do not reflect a loss of administrative capacity. They reflect an increasingly challenging environment, specific management decisions, employee misconduct or other extenuating circumstances.


Six breakdowns were terrorist attacks on the homeland. Given that we are in a low-grade war with terrorists, it’s hardly reasonable to count every successful attack as a governmental breakdown.

Seven breakdowns reflect specific policy or management decisions and not capacity. In this category are:

  • The use of enhanced interrogation techniques
  • The attorney firings in the Bush administration
  • The use of a Code Orange alert for political purposes
  • The delayed response to ISIS
  • The outing of Valerie Plame
  • The decision to go live with the Healthcare.gov website without adequate testing
  • The overspending at a General Services Administration award ceremony 

Nine breakdowns are primarily due to misconduct by government or contractor employees rather than lack of administrative capacity. These include:

  • Two separate episodes of misconduct by Secret Service employees
  • The Blackwater killings
  • The Haditha killings
  • The Abu Ghraib prison abuse
  • The discredited wartime stories
  • State Department email security violations
  • The National Security Agency data leak
  • The Abramoff lobbying scandal 

The Enron bankruptcy and the Bernie Madoff fraud scheme were failures at private businesses. The government can’t reasonably be expected to detect every case of business fraud or misconduct when there are thousands of businesses.

The Postal Service financing crisis is almost certainly the result of Congressional actions or inactions.

Six breakdowns are part of a larger, more successful picture. The Southwest airline groundings are listed, but overall the Federal Aviation Administration has done a good job maintaining airline safety. The Ebola response is listed, but the U.S. government’s leadership of the worldwide fight against Ebola could be counted as a success. A deadly mine accident is listed, but mine safety has been steadily improving. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s failure to order a timely recall of Chevrolet Cobalts is also listed. However, the highway deaths continue to go down. The Navy Yard mass shooting is listed, but murder rates were generally decreasing during the survey period. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) admits inappropriate delays occurred for some section 501(c) applications, but section 501(c) is one small provision in a very complex tax code. The IRS collects trillions of dollars with relatively little controversy.

The financial panic of 2008 is listed, but it is questionable whether government regulators can completely control the circumstances that lead to financial panic. How do you prevent people from selling their stocks or withdrawing their money from banks?

The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) failure to remove VIOXX from the marketplace is listed, but the FDA must monitor thousands of drugs. Many are beneficial but have severe side effects. It’s a close judgment call in many cases.

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) data breach reflects a new technological risk that is common to both business and government.

The Fast and Furious episode was a failed law enforcement operation. Some operational failures are to be expected and do not necessarily reflect on capacity.

The militia attack on the embassy outpost in Benghazi should not be counted because we expect host governments to provide security at embassy facilities. We don’t expect embassy properties to be able defend against militia attacks.

Every day the federal government executes approximately 20,000 pages of United States Code  provisions and takes action on thousands (perhaps millions) of issues ranging from individual Social Security claims to law enforcement operations. A tiny handful of governmental actions surface in the press. A review of breakdowns is not a valid method for determining whether the government has declining or increasing capability because it doesn’t consider the totality of what the government is required to do, how difficult the environment is and what has been accomplished.

I seriously doubt the U.S. government’s capability is declining. Before my retirement, I noticed many talented government and contractor employees were being hired. New computer systems were coming online that raised employee productivity. As a recent retiree, I can attest that Social Security, Medicare, OPM, and the Thrift Savings Plan all have greatly improved their customer service, each offering many online features for retirees to use.

Apple, Inc. has billions of cash available. It can afford to provide customer service at an extremely high level and can choose what products to build. Government agencies are never in this situation. They must implement every provision of law assigned to them with a fixed level of resources no matter how difficult or complex the assignment. For this reason, performance gaps may be more common in government.

I explored this issue in my October 2015 column. Performance gaps do not necessarily reflect declining administrative capability but may reflect legislative overload or be due to other reasons, such as misconduct or poor decision-making.

I am posting this column in PAR’s Speak Your Mind feature per the request of PAR’s editor.

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].

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