Analysis: When Government Makes Us Sick

Like many Americans, I pick up an energy bar from time to time without giving a moment's thought to my safety before eating it. Earlier this year, that choice hit me with a case of salmonella poisoning. Across the country, the outbreak caused by tainted peanuts plunged hundreds of young and elderly people into medical trauma and tragically led to nine deaths.

I confidently consume processed food products -- as do millions of other Americans -- because I assume that regulators, especially the Food and Drug Administration, are on the case ensuring our safety.

Yet FDA failed miserably to protect the public in the case of salmonella-laced peanut products, and it wasn't the first or only instance. The public has a right to know what FDA knew about the Georgia peanut plant that was responsible, how far back the agency knew it, and why officials didn't take immediate action to shut down the entire chain of contaminated products that went to market from the plant at the first warning sign.

FDA is making the case that the manufacturer is to blame, and there's no doubt that the company is primarily at fault. But can we accept FDA's conclusion that food safety in the United States is a matter of industry self-policing? If private industry had a strong track record of compliance and FDA had a record of challenging internal tests or punishing companies that abuse the system, maybe then such a system could be defended.

But FDA's recent record on food and consumer product safety is dismal:

  • A peer-reviewed report in the journal Environmental Health found that high fructose corn syrup is commonly tainted with trace levels of mercury. The lead author of the study, Renee Dufault, was an FDA researcher who was aware of the results in 2005, then went public after retiring from the agency in 2008.
  • Researchers at the University of Rochester in New York say in a study released in January that bisphenol A, which is used to make plastic and suspected of causing cancer, stays in the body much longer than previously thought. In 2008, FDA declared the chemical safe for all use in an assessment that contained language from reports written on behalf of chemical-makers or others with a financial stake in BPA.
  • According to a Jan. 23 article by Government Executive.com's sister publication CongressDaily, "Earlier this month, a group of FDA scientists wrote to President Obama's transition team a letter similar to one they sent Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., in October claiming FDA brass interferes with the medical-device review process to push through approvals based on faulty and unethical evidence."

It's no wonder the Government Accountability Office recently put FDA on its high-risk list, noting the agency's regulatory scope has expanded while resources to conduct that mission have not kept pace. There's no question FDA's mission should be reviewed and, when appropriate, get more funding to fulfill it.

But there are other important questions that go beyond agency funding levels. Why weren't food safety experts empowered to act on reports of problems at the Georgia peanut factories in real time? Why were the reports of respected scientists ignored in the instance of high fructose corn syrup? Why were industry groups allowed to write public safety reports on BPA? And why were political appointees interfering with a scientific review process about medical devices?

All these examples support a chilling similarity of failure -- every one of them resulting from the federal government's broken human capital management system, which isn't merely wasting taxpayer dollars, but also is putting the health and safety of Americans at risk every day.

If only these problems were confined to FDA, we could sweep out its system and replace it with that of a better performing agency. Unfortunately, there are no examples of better performing government agencies, only more examples of failure -- from the Federal Emergency Management Agency's tragic incompetence in New Orleans to NASA's ignored red flags before the space shuttle Columbia disaster to collapsed bridges, poorly explained prescription drug programs and financial systems run amok. The list goes on in today's newspapers.

The Bush administration's command-and-control approach to governance is largely responsible for the sad state of federal management. The White House persistently pushed its agenda down to departments and agencies rather than involving people in the decision-making process or creating market forces that help drive decisions. All management improvement initiatives were led centrally, resulting in a backlash among the rank and file.

This is the federal government President Obama has inherited. New marching orders and higher morale are good things, and a larger federal workforce probably is a necessity. But if the president doesn't act quickly to overhaul the way people are managed in all agencies, change the culture and change it fast, everything he tries to do -- from health care reform to energy independence projects -- could be imperiled.

Only the Office of Personnel Management has the governmentwide scope to deal with these issues in a comprehensive and continuous manner. OPM must become, at all levels and in all ways, part of the larger human resources community. While public sector HR management poses distinct challenges, it overlaps far more with the broader world of HR management than many in the public sector acknowledge or practice. OPM should stop being insular and isolated and come to understand what's going on in the public and private sectors.

By focusing on getting the most out of its workforce, the federal government would make major, long-overdue investments in effective government. Good, cost-effective government starts with staying out of the news and making what Americans expect to be routine, routine again.

All Americans ask is that the next time we pick up a piece of peanut butter candy or drink from a plastic container, please, no surprises.

Glenn Davidson is managing director of EquaTerra's public sector practice, serving federal, state and local government clients. In the public sector he was chief of staff for former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder and legislative director for former Ohio Congressman Ron Mottl.

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