Editor's Notebook


In the business of reporting and writing on current affairs, one is always pleased to find the perfect anecdote-the little story that captures the essence of the larger tale.

So it is too with the larger assignment of covering the federal government, as this magazine has done for 28 years. Every once in a while, one story can capture many of the big trends in government. Such a story is featured on our cover this month.

NASA, like the federal government as a whole, is an organization in decline. Its problems illustrate governmentwide trends we have written about recently:

  • A continuing and deepening budget crunch affecting.
  • The consequent imperative to shrink, requiring of its managers a constant attention to "the drudgery of downsizing," as the article puts it.
  • The privatization fad, whose advocates say that for-profit companies can perform heretofore federal functions in a fashion that's "faster, better, cheaper," to use the phrase NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin coined to describe his objectives at the agency.
  • A troubling brain drain, reflected at NASA not only in the loss of older, experienced hands, but also in the desertion of younger engineers who cannot see a promising future in the space agency.
  • Deep morale problems naturally associated with these developments, problems that diminish the quality of the work performed.
Reporter Beth Dickey, on the scene at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, reports this month that the confluence of these trends has raised questions in the space shuttle program about the margins of safety maintained for workers and astronauts.

There's an obvious loss of capability at NASA, as in the rest of government. Somehow it's more poignant with our premier science agency than with others, since NASA has given us so many proud and dramatic moments over the years.

But readers will see in the NASA tale a parable for their own professional circumstances. As our own Katherine McIntire Peters reported in November, for instance, the Defense Intelligence Agency is fast losing the experienced analysts on which the core of its business relies. Managers of agencies with assignments outstripping their resources will find soul mates among the people Peters interviewed for an article this month about military peacekeeping missions that have strained the capabilities of units on which the nation relies for larger defense needs. The newspapers, as I write, are filled with sad tales of federal agencies' problems. The FBI's crime laboratory's reputation is tarnished by a critical report from the Justice Department's inspector general. The Federal Election Commission admits that it has nowhere near the resources needed to keep up with campaign finance abuses. An IRS assistant commissioner asserts that the agency's $4 billion computer modernization has produced systems "that do not work in the real world."

The IRS official, Arthur Gross, adds that the agency does not have the "intellectual capital" needed to develop modern computer systems. That is a devastating assertion. One hopes, without much confidence, that it does not apply to the rest of government.

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