Government at Its Best

Ten years ago in Government Executive, Paul C. Light, now of New York University, presented the results of a survey on Government's Greatest Hits of the previous 50 years. To come up with the list, a Brookings Institution team analyzed 538 major federal laws passed between 1944 and 1999, and identified those they considered to be the 50 most significant problem-solving endeavors.

Then a survey research organization polled 450 American history and government professors, asking them to rank the items in terms of the importance of the problem to be solved, the difficulty in solving it and the federal government's success in meeting the challenge.

A decade later, we thought it would be worth revisiting the rankings and asking federal managers and executives for their opinions about them with the benefit of 10 more years of perspective on government's performance. So we developed a new list that includes the top 10 items in the 2001 rankings, a few other items from that year's list that seemed to have new resonance today, and a couple of endeavors undertaken since the previous poll was conducted.

Our research division, the Government Business Council, surveyed 418 federal managers for their views on the list in August. Responses came from Government Executive print and online subscribers, including those at the GS-11 to GS-15 levels and members of the Senior Executive Service.

They rated the government's success in meeting the various challenges on a 4-point scale, with 1 indicating "not successful" and 4 indicating "very successful." Here are the results.

1 Rebuild Europe After World War II
Action to support post-World War II economic recovery and political stability, e.g., establishment of the International Monetary Fund under the 1945 Bretton-Woods Agreement Act, 1948 Foreign Assistance Act, 1949 North Atlantic Treaty. Mean score: 3.29

2 Expand the Right to Vote
Action to guarantee the right to vote for all Americans over 18, e.g., 1964 Civil Rights Act, 24th Amendment 1964, 1965 Voting Rights Act, 26th Amendment 1971.
Mean score: 3.17

3 Promote Equal Access to Public Accommodations
Action to desegregate public facilities and require handicapped accessibility, e.g., 1964 Civil Rights Act, 1968 Open Housing Act, 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act.
Mean score: 2.88

4 Reduce Disease
Action to prevent and treat disease through research, direct assistance and regulation, e.g., 1955 Polio Vaccine Act, 1971 National Cancer Act.
Mean score: 2.87

5 Strengthen the National Defense
Action to build and modernize the nation's defenses, e.g., authorization of tactical and strategic weapons systems, 1958 Department of Defense Reorganization Act, 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act.
Mean score: 2.68

6 Promote Space Exploration
Action to develop the technology for a lunar landing and further space exploration, e.g., 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Administration Act, Apollo mission funding 1962, funds for a manned space station 1984.
Mean score: 2.65

7 Ensure Safe Food and Drinking Water
Action to establish and enforce food and water quality standards, e.g., 1947 Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act; 1967 Wholesome Meat Act; 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act.
Mean score: 2.49

8 Reduce Workplace Discrimination
Action to prohibit employers from discriminating based on race, color, religion, gender, national origin, age or disability, e.g., 1963 Equal Pay Act, 1964 Civil Rights Act, 1967 Age Discrimination Act, 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act.
Mean score: 2.41

9 Strengthen the Nation's Highway System
Action to build, improve and maintain the interstate highway system, e.g., 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act, 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act.
Mean score: 2.4

10 Ensure the Homeland Security of the United States
Action to protect the security of Americans in the aftermath of the Sept. 11. 2001, terrorist attacks, e.g., 2001 Aviation and Transportation Security Act, 2002 Homeland Security Act, 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act.
Mean score: 2.27

11 Increase Access to Health Care for Older Americans and Low-Income Families
Action to provide health insurance to elderly Americans and poor citizens, e.g., Medicare 1965, Catastrophic Health Insurance for the Aged 1988, Medicaid 1965, Children's Health Insurance Program 1997.
Mean score: 2.2

12 Make Government More Transparent to the Public
Action to increase public access to government activity and reduce administrative abuse, e.g., 1946 Administrative Procedures Act, 1966 and 1974 Freedom of Information Act, 1976 Government in the Sunshine Act, 1978 Inspector General Act, 2006 Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act.
Mean score: 1.84

13 Improve Government Performance
Action to enhance government efficiency, e.g., 1978 Civil Service Reform Act, 1982 Federal Managers' Financial Integrity Act, 1990 Chief Financial Officers Act, 1993 Government Performance and Results Act, 2010 GPRA Modernization Act.
Mean score: 1.74

14 Promote Financial Security in Retirement
Action to raise Social Security benefits, expand the number of recipients, ensure program's solvency, protect private pensions and encourage individual savings for retirement, e.g., Social Security expansions, Supplemental Security Income program 1972, 1974 Employment Retirement Income Security Act.
Mean score: 1.59

15 Increase the Stability of Financial Institutions and Markets
Action to increase access to financial market information, assist ailing institutions and avert potential problems, e.g., 1975 Securities and Exchange Act; 1988 Insider Trading and Securities Fraud Enforcement Act; 1989 Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act.
Mean score: 1.43

16 Overhaul the Health Insurance Industry
Action to restructure the nation's health insurance system, e.g., amendments to the 1974 Employee Income Security Act, 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
Mean score: 1.41

17 Reduce the Federal Budget Deficit
Action to balance the federal budget, e.g., 1985 Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act (Gramm-Rudman-Hollings), 1990 Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, 1993 Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, 1997 Balanced Budget Act.
Mean score: 1.13

Greatest Challenges

The Government Business Council also asked federal managers and executives for their views on what the biggest challenges are to effective government performance.

  • A full 47 percent of respondents ranked leadership challenges as the foremost limitation on effective performance, above cultural, process and technical challenges.
  • A lack of integration and barriers to information sharing are the central procedural and technical issues managers must address.
  • Among political and cultural challenges, more than half of managers reported a general resistance to change.
  • When asked openly about accomplishments and challenges, managers are quick to report grand government programs they believe were successes. But when describing failures, they look inward, reporting a lack of accountability, misuse of taxpayer funds, and "failure to integrate sound business practices into government agency planning and execution."

Stumbling Blocks
Percentage of respondents who gave each of the following the highest rating on a 4-point scale of challenges the federal government faces:

Leadership Issues -- 47%
Political/Cultural Issues -- 30%
Process/Procedural Issues -- 21%
Technical Issues -- 5%

Top Leadership Challenges
Accountability Gaps -- 53%
Incomplete Strategic Planning -- 46%
Difficulties Prioritizing -- 46%

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec