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Reconstructing the Administrative State

Five ways to recover from the shutdown.

We are seasoned observers—and sometime participants—in the federal bureaucracy. We share a conclusion: This truly awful government shutdown must never, ever happen again. But, perhaps even more important, we believe this: We must begin—now—to repair the incalculable damage that it has inflicted on the government on which so many Americans have discovered they depend. The costs, both to the economy and federal operations, for this latest shutdown run into the billions, the Congressional Budget Office estimates.

Even the shorter shutdowns of the past have cost the government billions of dollars. Analysts have estimated that Super Bowl distractions cost private companies $29 million a minute. For federal government shutdowns, the costs run into the tens of billions of dollars—shutting government down, gearing it back up, trying to manage the enormous disruptions to an incredibly wide range of important operations, and damaging the overall economy. Those costs cascade through the vast armies of contractors and grantees who do much of the government’s work.

But this time it’s even worse. We’ve discovered that the government does important stuff. It’s stuff that the American people want done. And it’s government that does it. The shutdown cost airlines tens of millions of dollars in lost revenue. Air traffic controllers worry that safety has deteriorated by the day. Everything from food inspection to food stamps to school lunches has been at risk. FBI agents have curtailed investigations, lost undercover sources, and couldn’t get into terrorism information-sharing computers. The federal courts worried about running out of funds and had to limit civil trials and investigations.

And the sight of uniformed federal workers in soup kitchens and food pantries is simply pathetic, in a country that prides itself as the world’s leading democracy.

Here’s the salient fact: The job of government policymakers is to decide what policies to make. Once they make them, their solemn obligation to the country is to fund these policies. Once they fund the administrators in charge of carrying out the programs, their job is to support them in transforming policy into results. It is unconscionable to make the government and its employees into proxy targets for big policy decisions that elected officials cannot—or will not—own up to.

It is equally unconscionable to play games by defining what is “essential,” in popular parlance, by choosing to keep some operations open and close others down, often based on who has the most political juice. It is beyond unconscionable to require employees to work, for weeks, in jobs that truly are essential, like air traffic controllers and Secret Service agents, but not pay them.

This craziness has to stop—and it should never be repeated. Here’s a checklist of five solutions.

First, we don’t have to suffer through this political theater. Many states have budget rules that allow them to continue to operate, at current levels, until their legislatures pass a new budget. Congress should set up the same rule.

Second, we always talk about running government more like the private sector, and the private sector’s biggest lesson is this: An organization’s biggest asset is its workers. The federal government needs to treat its own workers that way and begin—immediately—to rebuild the trust of its employees. The government must make a pledge never again to treat its employees as pawns in a game that isn’t about them.

Third, the federal government needs to make itself an attractive place to work for younger employees. The federal workforce is much older than its private sector counterparts. There’s an enormous number of federal employees eligible to retire, and they’re likely to do so in large numbers after this fiasco. On the other hand, the number of younger workers in the federal workforce is very low—the British government has twice as large a share of employees under the age of 30. The federal government has to fix its hiring system and create an environment that doesn’t chase away the very employees it most needs.

Fourth, the federal government needs to reskill its existing workers for the jobs of the future. It won’t be able to hire new employees fast enough to help the government keep up with the skills the information age demands. And if it doesn’t reskill the workforce it has, the government simply won’t be smart enough to govern.

Fifth, the federal government needs to make right its relationships with its contractors and grantees. We are no fans of the explosive growth of contractor government, with contractors often performing many essential government functions that should be reserved for government employees. But a blended workforce is the inescapable reality and it often works well—if government is smart enough to manage it well. However, an unintended consequence of the shutdown is that the federal workforce has been damaged and the number of contractors is certain to grow, not because it’s the right way to do business but simply to replace the government employees who have been forced to resign just to survive. The contractors, in turn, are going to be harder to find because they haven’t been guaranteed lost wages, even though government workers will eventually get their back pay.  

These insane dilemmas mean that the government is going to have an even harder getting the talent it needs, and government’s performance is sure to suffer. As we eventually emerge from this madness, we not only ought to commit to ensuring it never recurs. We must learn the lesson it teaches: The people’s government depends on the people who work for the government, and we need to make sure the government has the people we need. A laser-like focus on building the workforce is the unshakable solution to the lessons the shutdown has so painfully taught.

Steve Bannon offered the view that the administrative state must be “deconstructed.” If we’ve learned anything, it’s that the administrative state does things we want done—but that we must reconstruct it. The people live with the government they have asked their representatives to provide. Both Republicans and Democrats have a clear stake in effective government. And both parties have learned there’s a terrible cost for creating a theater of the truly absurd that only ends up punishing everyone.  

Donald F. Kettl is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin LBJ School of Public Affairs and author of Can Governments Earn Our Trust? Paul Verkuil is former head of the Administrative Conference of the United States and author of Valuing Bureaucracy: The Case for Professional Government.