Lilly_M, from Wikimedia Commons

The Problem With Government Is Not the People

It is what it’s always been: the systems.

Twenty-five years ago, then-Vice President Al Gore’s National Performance Review issued a report on the Clinton administration’s plans to “reinvent” the federal government. The document made Gore’s position very clear: Bureaucrats were not to blame for government’s woes:

The problem is not lazy or incompetent people: it is red tape and regulation so suffocating that they stifle every ounce of creativity. No one would offer a drowning man a drink of water. And yet, for more than a decade, we have added red tape to a system already strangling in it.

The federal government is filled with good people trapped in bad systems: budget systems, personnel systems, procurement systems, financial management systems, information systems. When we blame the people and impose more controls, we make the systems worse.

I thought of those words while reading a transcript of an interview Kara Swisher of the Recode Decode podcast did with Matt Cutts, acting head of the U.S. Digital Service. Cutts, in discussing how USDS operates—it is, in essence, a group of short-term employees drafted from the private sector to parachute in to agencies to help them solve pressing problems—said the organization doesn’t typically encounter that much resistance from federal employees:

There are fantastic, dedicated, passionate civil servants who might not be able to get the right thing done because they just face a lot of different kinds of adversity. Coming in, hopefully with air cover, and being able to say, “Here is an independent view and here’s why this person who already was situated at an agency and had a great idea should be empowered to make sure that that idea moves forward.”

Yes, it’s true that it is sometimes hard to get things done in government, but that’s not because there aren’t great people. It’s often just maybe something has been tried before and it didn’t quite work.

I joke that one of the roles of the U.S. Digital Service is to absorb risk. It’s to take things that look risky, and then by implementing them show them how this isn’t that risky. It’s been done in industry for years and years and years.

More than a year into the Trump administration, its appointees are beginning to learn that for all the talk of the “deep state,” career federal employees aren’t the problem. That’s why Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pledged to improve morale among the department’s employees, saying he would  “work every day to provide dedicated leadership and convey my faith in their work.”  And it’s why acting Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler recently told employees he would trumpet the fact that they are “some of the most dedicated of all the federal career employees in the federal government.”

The question is, will these and other officials commit themselves to fixing the systems issues that lead to paralyzing risk aversion and low morale? And will they encourage employees to step up and take risks—and not just the people who are coming in from industry for short stints in government? That would take the kind of sustained commitment to improving federal operations that frankly has been absent in the country’s political leadership for at least the last 25 years.

Photo: Lilly_M, from Wikimedia Commons