Americans rightly get angry when they learn of government bureaucrats spending lavishly in Vegas or Secret Service agents consorting with prostitutes. Such conduct wastes money and drains Americans’ respect for government.
Washington’s routine for embarrassing revelations is for executive and legislative officials to express shock, demand an investigation, and vow that such shenanigans will never happen again. Then all is forgotten until the next scandal comes along.
The problem with all this isn’t how we react to the occasional revelation of bureaucratic malfeasance. It’s how we don’t act the rest of the time.
Our government is so huge and unwieldy that only robust, continuing scrutiny — by Congress and from within each department — will keep it on course. Our government doesn’t work nearly as efficiently and effectively as it could, and Congress and top leaders in the bureaucracy bear direct responsibility.
How do we rebuild Americans’ trust that the federal government can get things right? Four changes are needed, each demanding that officials take their oversight duty much more seriously.
First, Congress and the agencies must not just react to misconduct after the fact, but be alert to its possibility. They should expect it will occur, search it out, and act to prevent it.
Second, Congress must insist that top layers of the bureaucracy take ethics and efficacy seriously. This is not easy. Cabinet secretaries and agency heads understandably want to focus their attention on policy. Usually, they believe they haven’t time for organization and process. And infusing a culture of high ethical standards and ramrod efficiency is immensely difficult in the bloated managerial structure our leaders have allowed to grow.
Third, the civil service system needs overhauling. Performance ratings routinely get inflated, bonuses are passed out whether or not deserved, promotions are automatic, few rewards exist for genuine excellence and even fewer penalties for shoddy performance.
Finally, huge problems are created by duplicate programs and overlap — there are 15 agencies assigned to food safety, for instance — along with wasteful spending, uncollected debts, unenforced rules, and unmanageable programs. It’s time for concerted attention to the big picture.
There’s no question where this attention must come from: Congress and the White House. No one else can fix it. It will take dogged effort and a willingness to delve into the unglamorous details of bureaucratic process. But until that happens, scandals and bumbling will continue to undermine Americans’ trust in their government.
Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University and a former U.S. representative.