Can We Make Government Work Better?

By Mike Koetting June 7, 2021

In my last post, I suggested that government will always have difficulties being efficient because it is trying to serve many ends, not of all of which are easily compatible. I then, rashly, as it turns out, suggested this post would include some suggestions that could mitigate the difficulties of implementation in government.

It’s not that there couldn’t be improvements. The problem is that it is hard to imagine how to implement the things that would improve implementation.

To be clear. I believe that while a certain amount of implementation difficulties come with the territory, I also think the American flavor of government contains features that could be modified to mitigate some of the issues described in my previous post. Among others, these include overly short time horizons, lack of leadership continuity, under-investment in agency infrastructure (including human capital), “gottchya culture,” and, correspondingly, lack of willingness to take risks.

I seemed to have thought it was possible to treat implementation as a largely neutral topic. Since everyone is interested in how well things get implemented and crises get handled, I allowed myself to believe these could be seen as non-partisan. But as I tried to write about that, I realized the notion was delusional. The cancer of hyper-partisanship has invaded all the organs of our government. In today’s political environment, nothing is non-partisan.

Too many Americans have lost faith in the over-riding tenet necessary for democracy—that, despite differences on specifics, there is a shared enterprise that is larger than the specifics. This shared enterprise brokers the tension between individual freedom and collective good. The course is not always smooth, but over time it tacks toward a better outcome.

Today, differences in beliefs about how government should work—and to what ends—are simply too large to allow for the overall belief structure to work much magic. Implementation, in this context, becomes just one more victim. We have descended into a vicious cycle where our distrust makes it harder to do things that might improve our trust level.

For instance, Michael Lewis, in his interview with Ezra Klein, has several suggestions he thinks would improve the functioning of key federal agencies. These include giving agencies more flexibility in hiring and firing, having fewer presidential appointees, and having longer terms for the heads of at least some agencies. I can readily imagine that each of these, used judiciously, could improve the ability of agencies to implement more effectively, to better respond to immediate crises, and to improve agency ability to take a longer of view of its needs and resources. I can’t, however, imagine any of these could be enacted.

On the one hand, Republican are all in favor of increasing the ability of the executive to hire and fire at virtual will because they believe the bureaucracy is a “deep state” staffed by people intent on promoting a liberal agenda, or at least blocking their agenda. Indeed, a pending lawsuit from one a former Trump appointee is aimed precisely at creating what they call “a unified executive”—where presidents can easily get rid of anyone in their way. Understandably, Democrats would be highly unlikely to support such a measure because they are afraid of what Republicans could do if the guardrails against a rogue executive were completely removed.

On the other hand, Republicans would be unlikely to go along with having fewer presidential appointees because they see those appointees as a way to exert control over the “deep state”.

And neither party would be likely to go along with giving longer terms to agency directors because both would fear the other party would subvert the process. The example of the judiciary shows how susceptible a process is to capture when one party decides to ignore the spirit of the law and uses any available lever to maintain control long after they have lost the presidency and Senate and no longer represent majority sentiment.

Even what would seem like the least partisan of Lewis’s suggestions—increased civics education—would most likely get bogged down in the cultural civil war. Whose version of civics would be taught? The furor over voting rights and “critical race theory” makes it clear there is no version of civics or our nation’s history that is shared by the whole country. So while virtually everyone agrees that citizen understanding of how government works is pathetic, any attempt to remedy would likely get lost in the swamp.

Another line of thought on how to improve agency performance goes back at least to Mann and Ornstein’s 2006 book, The Broken Branch. They argued that the breakdown of Congressional institutions led to not only a dysfunctional House and Senate, but also to problems in all the agencies because Congress was so ensnared in its own mishigas that it ceased to pay any coherent attention to how executive agencies operated—either in legislation or in oversight. The argument still has currency, but there is no plausible short term solution I can propose with a straight face.

In Short…

Today’s post ends, apologies to T.S. Elliott, not with a bang but with a whimper. There is little percentage in talking about improving government performance at the federal level when there is no market for such things among the people who should be in charge. Individual leaders will do what they can to improve performance in their bailiwick. In some cases that will make a difference. But measures that rely almost totally on individual abilities are less powerful than systemic fixes.

I do have the impression that implementation is somewhat better at the state and local level. To some extent that is because the general framework is determined at the federal level narrowing the range of necessary response and to some extent it is because there is less escaping it. Rahm Emanuel, when he was mayor of Chicago, pointed out the exhausting thing about being mayor is that you were forced to confront on a daily basis how things were going up close and personal. At the same time, it is still the case that these units of government are under-resourced in some areas and over-bureaucratized in others. The ability to keep current with technology, both systems and personnel, is a particular problem because it is expensive and requires foresight and willingness to commit to projects that run beyond the term of office of most governors, legislators or agency directors. It is also difficult because technology skills do not necessarily correspond with the seniority provisions of many civil service (and unionized) positions.

Moreover, many of the problems that bedevil progress at the national level trickle down to the local level. It is difficult to measure the relative performance on controlling COVID at state levels given the overall level of national chaos. How can you judge the performance of the Michigan Department of Public Health when portions of the citizenry are rioting that the very nature of their work is illegitimate?

I believe the ability of government agencies to implement programs and respond to crises is not something totally fixed by the nature of government. There are better and worse ways to do it. But I don’t see any realistic way for systematic improvement until as a society we have a more shared sense of the role and means of government. Not obvious that is any time soon.

Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

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