Government’s Biggest Failures, 2001-2014

By Tom Shoop

July 14, 2014

With scandals at agencies ranging from the IRS to the Veterans Affairs Department fresh in the public’s mind, a longtime scholar of federal management has published a new assessment of government’s failures since 2001.

In the paper, called A Cascade of Failures: Why Government Fails, and How to Stop It, Paul C. Light, the Paulette Goddard Professor of Public Service at New York University, examines 41 stories that resonated with the public in a major way, using the Pew Research Center’s News Interest Index as a yardstick. The nonpartisan index, which has been published since 1986, attempts to measure how closely Americans are following stories covered by news organizations.

“Federal failures have become so common that they are less of a shock to the public than an expectation,” Light writes. At the same time, he adds, “I did not write this paper as yet another cudgel against ‘big government.’ As I have long argued, the federal government creates miracles every day, often in spite of tighter budgets, persistent criticism and complex missions.”

Light concludes in the study that government failures have been increasing over time, from an average of 1.6 per year from 1986 to 2001 to 3 per year after that.

Here are the top 10 failures on Light’s list. They are ranked in terms of Americans’ news interest, not magnitude of government failure. For the full list of 41 failures Light assessed, click here.

1. 9/11 Terrorist Attacks


2. Financial Collapse


3. Hurricane Katrina


4. Gulf Oil Spill


5. Abu Ghraib Prison Abuse


6. Boston Marathon Bombings


7. Shuttle Columbia Accident


8. Code Orange Terrorism Alert


9. I-35W Bridge Collapse


10. Mine Accidents


(Image via Africa Studio/

By Tom Shoop

July 14, 2014