GovExec at 50: The Dawn of Hollow Government

A look back at one of our most influential stories.

In this, the 50th anniversary year of Government Executive, we’re taking an occasional look back at some of our most influential articles. We’ll start with the cover story of the October 1989 issue of the magazine, “Hollow Government.”

The piece sounded the alarm about the “incapacitating consequences of continuing austerity” for federal agencies. “Pervasive shortfalls in funds for the basic infrastructure costs of providing government services—personnel, computers, training, capital equipment—have compromised the ability of almost every government entity to accomplish its traditional mission,” wrote the article’s author, Mark L. Goldstein.

He included several examples, which will sound familiar to those in and around the world of government management:

  • “The Department of Veterans Affairs has such a shortage of doctors and nurses that many of its hospitals can only accommodate critical care patients. … Patients may wait hours for help in hallways or unmade beds.”
  • “While attendance at national parks increased by 62 million between 1980 and 1988, full-time staff at the National Park Service remained fairly flat.”
  • “The IRS, even with new computers, has seen the percentage of tax returns it audits every year drop almost in half between 1978 and 1987.”
  • “The recent generic drug scandal at the Food and Drug Administration occurred in part because drug approvals by the agency can drag on for two years or more.”

Goldstein went on to a career on Capitol Hill and at the Government Accountability Office, among other organizations. He expanded his article into a book that was published in 1992.

“Hollow Government” put Government Executive on the map in a significant way. The term focused attention on the impact of the cutbacks of the 1980s on federal operations. The federal government, to a greater or lesser extent, has struggled with the problem of sufficiently funding its agencies and programs ever since. While budget austerity has waxed and waned, the problem of adequate resources to feed Americans’ ever-growing appetite for government services remains a pressing national concern.

As Government Executive celebrates its 50th anniversary, we’ve created the Theodore Roosevelt Government Leadership Awards and Government Hall of Fame to honor distinguished federal managers and executives and industry leaders. Nominations are now open.  

Click here for more information and to nominate someone