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Government’s Biggest Failures, 2001-2014

A scholar looks at recent instances of where government has fallen short, either in oversight or operations.

With scandals at agencies ranging from the IRS to the Veterans Affairs Department fresh in the public’s mind, a longtime scholar of federal management has published a new assessment of government’s failures since 2001.

In the paper, called A Cascade of Failures: Why Government Fails, and How to Stop It, Paul C. Light, the Paulette Goddard Professor of Public Service at New York University, examines 41 stories that resonated with the public in a major way, using the Pew Research Center’s News Interest Index as a yardstick. The nonpartisan index, which has been published since 1986, attempts to measure how closely Americans are following stories covered by news organizations.

“Federal failures have become so common that they are less of a shock to the public than an expectation,” Light writes. At the same time, he adds, “I did not write this paper as yet another cudgel against ‘big government.’ As I have long argued, the federal government creates miracles every day, often in spite of tighter budgets, persistent criticism and complex missions.”

Light concludes in the study that government failures have been increasing over time, from an average of 1.6 per year from 1986 to 2001 to 3 per year after that.

Here are the top 10 failures on Light’s list. They are ranked in terms of Americans’ news interest, not magnitude of government failure. For the full list of 41 failures Light assessed, click here.

1. 9/11 Terrorist Attacks


  • 96% News Interest
  • Type of Failure: Oversight
  • Despite early alerts of the possible threat, al-Qaeda operatives were able to hijack four commercial airliners on September 11, 2001, and used them as missiles to attack the World Trade Center's Twin Towers in New York City and the Pentagon.

2. Financial Collapse


  • 92% News Interest
  • Type of Failure: Oversight
  • After years of risky investments and with little regulation, the banking system collapsed under the weight of toxic assets created by risky mortgage loans, poorly understood financial instruments, and a credit crisis that froze the economy.

3. Hurricane Katrina


  • 91% News Interest
  • Type of Failure: Operations
  • Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana on August 29, 2005, breaching the levees protecting New Orleans; stranding thousands of residents on rooftops, in the Superdome, and on bridges; and freezing the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state agencies.

4. Gulf Oil Spill


  • 88% News Interest
  • Type of Failure: Oversight
  • An explosion on British Petroleum's Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling platform killed 11 oil workers, while the failure of a "blow-out preventer" created a leak far below that lasted 87 days and caused the largest oil spill in history.

5. Abu Ghraib Prison Abuse


  • 87% News Interest
  • Type of Failure: Operations
  • Prisoners at Iraq's infamous Abu Ghraib prison were abused and humiliated by U.S. guards and contractors, leading to widespread publication of photos from the incident, and later reports of similar abuse at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

6. Boston Marathon Bombings


  • 85% News Interest
  • Type of Failure: Oversight
  • A known terrorist and his younger brother detonated improvised "pressure-cooker" bombs near the Boston Marathon finish line, killing three spectators and wounding 250 others. The older brother was on at least two terrorist watch lists.

7. Shuttle Columbia Accident


  • 82% News Interest
  • Type of Failure: Operations
  • A breach of the Space Shuttle Columbia's heat shield upon reentry after a 16-day mission killed its seven-member crew, and confirmed many of the same problems that caused the Challenger disaster almost two decades earlier.

8. Code Orange Terrorism Alert


  • 81% News Interest
  • Type of Failure: Operations
  • The Secretary of Homeland Security succumbed to White House pressure, and raised the threat level from elevated (yellow) to orange (high risk) just days after the Democratic National Convention ended.

9. I-35W Bridge Collapse


  • 80% News Interest
  • Type of Failure: Oversight
  • Thirteen people were killed and 90 injured when an interstate highway bridge perched over the Mississippi River in Minnesota collapsed during rush hour in part due to a repair project designed to fix a flawed design.

10. Mine Accidents


  • 80% News Interest
  • Type of Failure: Oversight
  • Twelve miners were killed when methane gas exploded inside a West Virginia mine, and another six were killed soon after when the walls collapsed inside a Utah mine. Other mine disasters occurred in the interim.

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