On a Mission

Anti-bureaucracy crusaders might be missing the root problem.

As 2011 dawned, federal agencies and the people who work in them were in a familiar position: the targets of politicians eager to score points with a disaffected electorate.

Just a day after Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the new chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform committee, declared the Obama administration was "one of the most corrupt administrations" in history, his spokesman shifted the blame to another target: the "institutionalized culture of waste, fraud and abuse" in federal bureaucracy. "The enemy isn't the Democrats or the Republicans," the spokesman, Kurt Bardella, told The Washington Post. "It's the bureaucracy that outlasts any one administration or political party."

Let's set aside the disturbing rhetoric of characterizing career public servants as the "enemy," and assume, for the sake of argument, there's at least a grain of truth to this-not that there's a culture of fraud and abuse, necessarily, but a systemic problem of waste and inefficiency in government. Where might such a problem originate? In the bureaucracy itself?

In her 2010 annual report to Congress, National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson provided one answer. She noted the Internal Revenue Service has a growing problem: Increasingly, Congress has asked the agency to take on new missions that are the opposite of its traditional role of collecting taxes. These have ranged from managing economic stimulus payments to taxpayers to administering portions of the health care reform bill. "The increasing use of the IRS to administer benefit programs," Olson wrote, "is placing significant strains on the IRS' limited resources and requiring the IRS to perform tasks that go well beyond its current mission statement."

That isn't the end of the world. Many agencies have multiple, even conflicting, missions. The IRS itself already has to balance enforcement and customer service responsibilities.

But here's one thing we learned about 10 years ago, when Government Executive participated in the Government Performance Project, which rated agencies' management capacity: Mission clarity is one of the strongest predictors of success. And conflicting missions can bring an agency to its knees. Just ask the folks at the old Minerals Management Service how well they both facilitated oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and policed the companies doing it.

The mission creep problem can become especially acute if an agency doesn't get the resources it needs to manage its responsibilities. And in the current budget-cutting climate, how likely is it the IRS will get the money and staff it needs? And if it doesn't, who will be at fault when waste, inefficiency and mismanagement creep into its operations?

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