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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.

Presidential Hopefuls Rip Wasteful Bureaucracy--and That’s Just the Democrats

Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton during the Democratic presidential primary debate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee on Feb. 11, 2016. Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton during the Democratic presidential primary debate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee on Feb. 11, 2016. Morry Gash/AP

The two remaining Democratic presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, have long and longer lists of initiatives the federal government should undertake or beef up, in areas ranging from job creation to health care.

Clinton has sought to position herself as the more moderate of the two candidates–charging in Thursday night’s PBS Democratic debate in Milwaukee, for example, that Sanders’ proposals would increase the size of the federal government by 40 percent. But she also advocates for a more muscular federal presence in areas such as clean energy, early childhood education and infrastructure investment.

Clinton and Sanders spend proportionately less time talking about what they might cut from government. But the subject does come up from time to time, and it did again in the Thursday’s debate. A Facebook questioner asked Sanders whether there were “any areas of government you would like to reduce?"

Sanders, and then Clinton, were quick to say they weren’t fans of everything government does. Here’s their exchange, according to a Washington Post transcript:

Sanders: Hey, I'm in the United States Senate, and anyone who doesn't think that there is an enormous amount of waste and inefficiency and bureaucracy throughout government would be very, very mistaken. I believe in government, but I believe in efficient government, not wasteful government.

Debate moderator Gwen Ifill: How about you, Senator Clinton–Secretary Clinton?

Clinton: Absolutely. And, you know, there are a number of programs that I think are duplicative and redundant and not producing the results that people deserve. There are a lot of training programs and education programs that I think can be streamlined and put into a much better format so that if we do continue them they can be more useful, in public schools, community colleges, and colleges and universities.

I would like to take a hard look at every part of the federal government and really do the kind of analysis that would rebuild some confidence in people that we're taking a hard look about what we have, you know, and what we don't need anymore. And that's what I intend to do.

Sanders: If I could just answer that, we have also got to take a look at the waste and inefficiencies in the Department of Defense, which is the one major agency of government that has not been able to be audited. And I have the feeling you're going to find a lot of cost overruns there and a lot of waste and duplicative activities.

It’s noteworthy that both candidates went out of their way to declare that government waste and bureaucracy needs attention. That said, their responses were lacking in specifics. Even Sanders’ proposal to seek out Pentagon waste doesn’t address where in the gigantic department savings might come from. And if he has seen a lot of waste and inefficiency from his perch in the Senate, he hasn’t been among the leaders of efforts to do much about it.

Clinton, for her part, took the route popularized by many presidential hopefuls in recent election cycles, promising a “hard look” and “analysis” of the bureaucracy to see where reductions could be made. (That sounds a lot like the reinventing government effort her husband assigned to Al Gore. And it’s not the first time she’s included a REGO-like proposal in a presidential campaign.)

The problem with the “let’s study it” approach is that literally hundreds of reports on government organization and bureaucracy have been produced in the last few decades. These include not only initiatives like REGO, but Government Accountability Office publications, inspector general reports, special commission analyses and think tank studies.

Here’s what would be really interesting: If a presidential candidate boldly pledged not to study the issue of government organization and management, but simply to act on it quickly. He or she could assign a team during the campaign to assess the voluminous documentation that already exists (there’d be no shortage of expert volunteers) and come up with a plan to be implemented in the first 100 days of the administration.

That of course, would require making management of government a priority. And especially in today’s political climate, that doesn’t seem likely.

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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