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Government Executive Editor in Chief Tom Shoop, along with other editors and staff correspondents, look at the federal bureaucracy from the outside in.

Van Halen, Brown M&Ms, and the Bureaucracy

AP file photo

How does a rock band's famed contract rider requiring that its members be served M&Ms with all of the brown ones removed explain seemingly inexplicable bureaucratic decisions?

Ezra Klein provides the answer in the Washington Post's Wonkblog. "Call it the Van Halen Principle," he writes. "Tales of someone doing something unbelievably stupid or selfish or irrational are often just stories you don’t yet understand." In the case of Van Halen, the real story is that the rockers included the brown M&M language so they could tell as soon as they arrived at an arena whether concert promoters had actually read the other far more important fine print in their contract. In the case of the bureaucracy, it means that while it's easy for the president to mock the fact that two separate agencies are responsible for regulating salmon, there may be a perfectly logical explanation. 

As Klein writes:

It would be nice if the government’s mistakes were typically a product of stupidity, venality or bureaucracy. Then we would need only to remove the idiots, fire the villains and cut the red tape. More often, the outrageous stories we hear are cases of decent people trying to solve tough problems under difficult constraints that we simply haven’t taken the time to understand.

The problem is there's no incentive for people to understand how government really works. First of all, it's hard. Government organizations are highly complex entities, because the issues they deal with are complicated and the implications of their actions are far-reaching. Second, it's become accepted folk wisdom that bureaucrats simply can't manage. Americans highly value their freedom to mock public servants. Finally, political leaders like nothing better than deflecting attention from their own foibles by pointing out deficiencies in government management.

Unfortuntately, this is a problem that's probably going to get worse before it gets better. In an era characterized by sequester and furloughs, on one hand and ever-increasing federal responsibilities on the other, the incentive to hunt down ridiculous examples of government waste is going to be powerful indeed. 

Tom Shoop is vice president and editor in chief at Government Executive Media Group, where he oversees both print and online editorial operations. He started as associate editor of Government Executive magazine in 1989; launched the company’s flagship website, GovExec.com, in 1996; and was named editor in chief in 2007.

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