Four ways to restore the vitality of the executive branch.
By Katherine McIntire Peters, Eric Katz, Charles S. Clark and Kellie Lunney
Illustrations by Dan Matutina
If you stand on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington and look north across the Tidal Basin, you won’t see Alexander Hamilton’s statue in front of the Treasury Department. You’ll feel his presence as strongly as that of the marble man behind you though. The two pioneers of freedom held profoundly different views about how the nation should be governed, a dispute that still plays out today across the country—especially here in the capital city, the epicenter of the sprawling federal bureaucracy. A Revolutionary War hero and first secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton was the leading proponent of a strong central government; Thomas Jefferson, the visionary Virginian and author of the Declaration of Independence, was deeply skeptical of that approach.
What would the Founding Fathers say if they could see Washington now? Even Hamilton couldn’t have anticipated the emergence of 24 major departments and agencies that touch nearly every facet of American life, from the food we eat to our retirement savings. The ambivalence many Americans feel for the federal government—particularly for the executive branch—is perhaps best summed up by a placard spotted at a political rally against the Affordable Care Act: “Government Keep Yore Hands Off My Medicare: Don’t Steal From Medicare to support SOCIALIZED MEDICINE.” That so many people seem to forget that Medicare is itself a government program speaks to how tightly the executive branch has been woven into the fabric of our daily lives. Americans both love and loathe the weft and warp of government (sometimes simultaneously), but most would agree that some mending is in order.
If the founders set out to redesign the executive branch today, it probably wouldn’t look much like the one we’ve got. Starting from whole cloth isn’t an option, of course, but in these pages we explore four ways the government of and by the people could do a better job of being for the people.
—Katherine McIntire Peters
Is That Really Necessary?
Some questionable agencies and programs have survived near-constant calls to cut government waste.
In April, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts approved a Washington Transportation Department proposal to line the city’s Case Memorial Bridge with a blue accent light. The federal government’s role in permitting lights to go on local bridges traces back to the city’s 19th century founding. The explanation for its continuing presence remains unclear.
A lot of Americans think government is bloated and increasingly infringes on the rights and responsibilities of private citizens and businesses. That discussion is largely a partisan issue.
In some instances, however, there is bipartisan agreement. The conversation sometimes transcends the existential (What is the role of government?) and takes on a more concrete form (Is that really necessary?). Even government’s defenders would likely concede some functions are no longer relevant, and some agencies have outlived their original purpose.
In March, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a measure to abolish the National Technical Information Service. The agency—nestled in the depths of the Commerce Department—was created to make available to the public already published technical reports.
The senators wonder: Why can’t interested parties just Google the information? Why must an entire bureaucratic entity exist to provide people with what is mostly readily available online? With the agency surviving previous efforts to dismantle it, the answer may be as simple as inertia.
Take another example: The anachronism of the Tennessee Valley Authority is openly discussed in the agency’s description of its founding in 1933. The corporation was created because then-President Franklin Roosevelt was looking for “innovative solutions” to “lift the nation out of the depths of the Great Depression,” according to the TVA website.
Today, TVA receives little in the way of taxpayer support, and focuses on distributing electricity to seven southeastern states. But the nation has long since recovered from the event that led to the agency’s creation. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that selling off TVA’s utility functions would save $3.5 billion over 10 years. But when the Obama administration proposed merely studying whether to privatize TVA, labor unions and members of Congress—including some Republicans—quickly pushed back. The corporation’s continued existence shows that the process of even considering whether to close an agency is long and arduous.
In the widely scrutinized and analyzed report by the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, known as Simpson-Bowles for co-chairs Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, the anointed arbiters of government spending said agencies should be required to go through a process of “distinguishing between core services and programs that have simply continued through inertia.”
The report was never adopted, and that formal review never happened.
The momentum that keeps agencies and programs afloat continues despite some crusaders’ best efforts: Before his retirement this year, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., famously published his government “wastebook” annually, highlighting what he considered to be unnecessary spending. The Government Accountability Office frequently points out areas of government duplication and overlap, while good government groups and think tanks often cite examples of inefficient federal spending.
GAO, for example, could not find a good reason why the government needed the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and a separate entity within the State Department, the Office of International Religious Freedom. The two entities failed to collaborate and sometimes irritated foreign governments by delivering conflicting messages. Overall in the last five years, the government has fully addressed just 37 percent of 440 actions GAO identified to reduce areas of overlap.
Some agencies have attempted to take matters into their own hands. The Social Security Administration decided it could significantly shrink its footprint—budgetary and physical—by reducing field offices. After pushback from labor groups and lawmakers, SSA decided to maintain its field network.
Sometimes even government employees point to their own ineffectiveness.
In 2013, Mike Marsh, then the inspector general for the Denali Commission, an independent federal agency largely viewed as a pork project designed to boost infrastructure and provide economic support in Alaska, wrote to Congress saying he had concluded the commission was a “congressional experiment that hasn’t worked out in practice. His solution? “I recommend that Congress put its money elsewhere.”
The result of Marsh’s kamikaze mission? Nothing. The Denali Commission still exists.
— Eric Katz
Get Serious About Going Digital
Technology can be disruptive, but most agencies could use some disruption.
If you want to feel discouraged about government, consider a few random facts:
- The Library of Congress—the world’s largest repository of knowledge—is so out of touch on digital matters leaders have no idea how much they spend on technology or what equipment their employees use (the agency chief reportedly doesn’t use email and rarely uses a cellphone).
- An electronic immigration processing system that was supposed to be completed in 2013 for $536,000 has ballooned in costs to $2.6 billion and now isn’t scheduled to be finished until 2019.
- During the past 13 years, the Pentagon spent more than $46 billion on just a dozen weapons that were canceled before they ever saw a battlefield, mostly because they didn’t perform as military leaders expected.
- The Obama administration’s signature accomplishment—the Affordable Care Act—nearly crashed and burned before it even got off the ground when fewer than 1 percent of visitors to Healthcare.gov were able to sign up for insurance the week it went live because of glitches with the website.
The reasons for those failures—chronicled in painful detail in reports by the Government Accountability Office, inspectors general and outside analysts—are as varied as the programs themselves. Poor leadership, a Byzantine procurement system and general complacency all are factors. Technology debacles have become so routine we’re more surprised when things work or when projects come in on time and on budget than when they don’t.
The government’s inability to reliably implement new information technologies hurts more than the bottom line or agencies’ public image. When the patient scheduling system at the Veterans Affairs Department fails, government officials put the lives of veterans at risk. When the Pentagon has to create an entirely new agency to buy vital equipment to thwart roadside bombs on foreign battlefields—because its existing procurement system can’t deliver a useful product in a reasonable amount of time—soldiers die needlessly.
The Obama administration deserves credit for its efforts to retool agencies for the digital world most Americans live in. It has reached out to Silicon Valley executives to recruit some of the best and brightest tech minds in the country to come to Washington and shake up the status quo. Last year, the White House stood up the U.S. Digital Service specifically to improve the way agencies purchase and manage technology projects. “Our primary work product is not memos and advisory statements and new processes and stuff like that. It’s actual working, functioning services,” Director Mikey Dickerson told the president’s Management Advisory Board in September 2014. The General Services Administration’s digital shop 18F is on the case as well, with a mission to improve customer service across government with more user-friendly websites.
But the administration’s misjudgments in rolling out the health exchange website are reason for caution, and it won’t be enough to just outfit agencies with a lot of shiny new gadgets. Technology must be seen as a tool to advance the mission, not an end in itself. Leaders who fail to understand that distinction risk more than wasted money, something former Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned about in his memoir Duty (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014): “We are enamored of technology and what it can do because of advances in precision, sensors, information and satellite technology. A button is pushed in Nevada, and seconds later a pickup truck explodes in Mosul. A bomb destroys the targeted house on the right, leaving intact the one of the left.” For too many, war has become “a kind of arcade video game or action movie, bloodless, painless, odorless,” he wrote.
President Obama famously said he wanted to make government cool again. The coolest thing would be a government that routinely leveraged technology to work more efficiently and effectively—without losing sight of what truly matters.
—Katherine McIntire Peters
Do the Bold Thing: Trust Each Other
The Senior Executive Service doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The entire government bears responsibility for making it work.
The 37-year-old Senior Executive Service is having a midlife crisis.
Debates over age 37 being “midlife” notwithstanding, there’s no denying that the government’s cadre of top career officials is struggling—privately and publicly—with a lot of issues. There are roughly 7,000 career senior executives in the federal government today—less than 1 percent of the approximately 2 million-person civilian workforce. But recent high-profile scandals involving, or at least implicating, senior executives at agencies including the Veterans Affairs Department, Internal Revenue Service and the General Services Administration, have tarnished the corps’ reputation—some would argue unfairly—and attracted unwanted attention from Congress. Sensitive issues related to SES recruitment, pay and job performance festering for years within government have been ripped wide open.
So, in late 2014, Washington did what it usually does when crisis erupts: Convene a blue-ribbon panel to study the problem. President Obama this spring personally told his newly minted advisory group on SES reform to be “bold” and “aggressive” with its proposals. There are lots of new and old ideas circulating for shaking up the SES and restoring its luster, including requiring senior executives to switch jobs every few years to combat complacency, creating a separate corps with fixed terms and no appeal rights if they are fired, and altering the pay scale to rectify situations where some SESers make less money than their employees. A more diverse SES, in every sense of the word, is a crucial component to making the senior corps the best it can be, now and into the future.
Practical reform proposals aside, something even more difficult has to happen if we expect the best from the best. (Which, by the way, we should.) We need to stop casting blame, and acknowledge we’re all at fault for this mess.
The SES and the rest of government, all the rest of government, need to be bold. They need to be bold about trusting each other—not blindly or without accountability, but with “clear eyes” and “full hearts,” as fictional high school football coach Eric Taylor from Friday Night Lights used to say to inspire his Dillon Panthers before they headed into battle on the field and in life. We often talk about outsiders bashing the federal workforce. But what about the mistrust and cynicism that has metastasized within agencies among co-workers, to say nothing of the animosity between the executive and legislative branches?
A disconnect exists between senior executives and the rank-and-file, two groups that often eye each other just as suspiciously as career workers and political appointees do. “I know it might sound trite, but I think there is something about needing to rebuild the trust factor, which comes back to relationships and communication and connecting to people,” says David Dye, a director in the federal practice at Deloitte Consulting LLP and a former Office of Personnel Management official.
A trust-building effort would empower employees to blow the whistle on wrongdoing. It would encourage more senior leaders to talk and listen to their employees, and actually know what is going on in their agencies. “Your perspective on problems is formed from where you sit, and having that seat change from time to time helps inform your governmentwide experience,” says Dan Blair, president and chief executive officer of the National Academy of Public Administration, who has worked in the executive branch and on Capitol Hill. Blair was referring to increasing senior executives’ mobility around government during their careers, but his comment could easily apply to the view within agencies and among colleagues.
Let’s face it: More trust and respect among employees isn’t going to solve the entrenched bureaucracy and toxic workplaces that exist in every executive agency. But it certainly can’t hurt. And it will foster an environment where accountability, creativity, employee engagement and camaraderie have a decent chance of taking root and flourishing. Relationships don’t work if they are not built on trust. What is the government, especially in the 21st century, if not an endless, overlapping maze of relationships?
Senior executives don’t exist in a vacuum. They work alongside other career employees, political appointees, contractors, lawmakers and congressional staffers. The entire government bears responsibility for making the Senior Executive Service work. Effective government is a team effort. “Clear eyes, full hearts. Can’t lose.”
Eric Katz joined Government Executive in the summer of 2012 after graduating from The George Washington University, where he studied journalism and political science. He has written for his college newspaper and an online political news website and worked in a public affairs office for the Navy’s Military Sealift Command. Most recently, he worked for Financial Times, where he reported on national politics.
Katherine McIntire Peters is deputy editor of Government Executive Media Group, a division of Atlantic Media, where she oversees editorial coverage for GovExec.com and Government Executive magazine. She previously was executive editor of Nextgov.
Charles S. Clark joined Government Executive in the fall of 2009. He has been on staff at The Washington Post, Congressional Quarterly, National Journal, Time-Life Books, Tax Analysts, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, and the National Center on Education and the Economy. He has written or edited online news, daily news stories, long features, wire copy, magazines, books and organizational media strategies.
Kellie Lunney covers federal pay and benefits issues, the budget process and financial management. After starting her career in journalism at Government Executive in 2000, she returned in 2008 after four years at sister publication National Journal writing profiles of influential Washingtonians. In 2006, she received a fellowship at the Ohio State University through the Kiplinger Public Affairs in Journalism program, where she worked on a project that looked at rebuilding affordable housing in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. She has appeared on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, NPR and Feature Story News, where she participated in a weekly radio roundtable on the 2008 presidential campaign. In the late 1990s, she worked at the Housing and Urban Development Department as a career employee. She is a graduate of Colgate University.