The Big Fix

If government is broken, as many believe, then what can be done to fix it?

For one wide-ranging set of answers, we can turn to the Memos to National Leaders project mounted
this year by the National Academy of Public Administration and the American Society of Public Administration to address nine key government issues, from transparency to intergovernmental relations. 

Let’s start with the budgeting memos, since virtually everyone in Washington is transfixed by the fiscal cliff and the longer range problem of controlling government spending and debt. Its authors include Paul Posner, a big-picture thinker who was a top executive at the Government Accountability Office for years before becoming head of the public administration program at George Mason University. He and his co-authors note that the budget process has “virtually seized up,” with decisions chronically late each year and many programs on never-ending autopilot. Budgeting, they say, should be much more “far-sighted and strategic, more focused and disciplined.” 

Many government reformers believe that budgets should be shaped around national goals and priorities. To this end, the authors suggest selected
strategic reviews of major spending and tax categories. Outside experts could help conduct these reviews, they write, as was done for years in the Brookings Institution’s now discontinued Setting National Priorities series of books. 

These reviews might help the administration, in consultation with congressional leaders, focus on high-priority national objectives: a more productive labor force, greater energy independence, broad improvements in health, for example. A portfolio approach to such objectives could encompass reviews not just of spending programs but also tax expenditures, regulatory and legislative mandates, and other policy tools.

To provide a more formalized means of addressing fiscal imbalances,
the authors suggest that Congress require a presidential address, in the fall at the beginning of the federal fiscal year, on the fiscal outlook and the proposed budget’s effects on deficits and debt. As for Congress, the memos suggest limiting the extensive direction it now gives agencies about how they spend their money.  

It’s also an article of faith among reformers that government is poorly organized to achieve its missions. Indeed, President Obama began, but never really pursued, a reorganization initiative and he recently opined that the government needs a “secretary of business” to oversee programs aimed at boosting the private sector. 

One of the memos suggests that the president rebuild the shriveled capacity of his executive office to design reorganizations. But the more likely course would be to create more virtual reorganizations like the one that created the Interagency Council on Homelessness. Established by legislation, the council has helped focus the efforts of federal, state and local agencies, even though it has never had a presidentially appointed boss who could crack the whip. The memo suggests that Congress grant the president authority to appoint from among his agency leaders various “chiefs of national goals.” Whether this would succeed after many less-than-effective efforts to deploy White House czars and interagency councils is uncertain, of course, but perhaps it’s worth a try. 

One of the most compelling memos addresses the nation’s intergovernmental crisis. It’s a cri de coeur from former Maryland Gov. Parris Glendenning and others about state and local governments’ inability to meet the challenges confronting them and the lack of true collaboration with authorities in Washington. “The crisis at its heart is the absence of adequate revenue,” they write, noting with chagrin the loss of more than 700,000 public employees during the past two years. Federal tax “reforms” could hurt states and cities—for example, by curtailing deductions of taxes paid to such jurisdictions. Health care, environmental regulation and immigration programs are among many issues demanding, but not getting, carefully designed intergovernmental policies. A useful step, the authors write, would be creation of an intergovernmental policy council.

Another memo suggests ways to strengthen the broken appointments process, which has seen many key political positions held vacant for months and allowed senators like Richard Shelby, D-Ala., to put long-running holds on nominees to secure a little more pork for their states. Its authors also would like a new presidential commission to devise a plan for reducing the number of political appointees. Other memos suggest new bureaucracies and processes for effecting change. Several propose establishing chief management officers like the one operating with a small staff at the Defense Department. One memo suggests a new office of citizen engagement to promote that goal among federal agencies. Another includes an interesting proposal to establish “public benefit corporations” to enlist private and public resources to work on infrastructure and other challenges. 

So in this ideal world outlined by two distinguished public administration organizations, we’d have a better organized government with better qualified leaders focusing on the most pressing national problems and deploying federal, state, local and private resources to make a better world. And one more thing: The federal government would designate at least one big science goal: to achieve energy self-sufficiency while also protecting the world’s climate. The memos can be found at www.napawash.org.

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