Orhan Cam/Shutterstock.com

Does the COVID-19 Crisis Cap 25 Years of Government Blunders?

"What went wrong? The answer is: Almost everything went wrong, and almost everything that did go wrong had been foretold."

A quarter-century pattern of failure by the federal government in efforts to respond to national crises tells the story of how we’ve arrived at this moment in American history, argues Paul C. Light.

A longtime student of the US federal bureaucracy, Light, a professor of public service at New York University’s Wagner School, has been busy examining the factor that led to rising COVID-19 caseswidespread unemployment, and police brutality over the past months.

Each devastating blow the US public has been dealt this year, he says, has something in common with the more than 200 other crises faced by this country over the past decades: namely, a poorly performing federal bureaucracy.

“Our federal government suffers from pervasive complacency,” explains Light, whose research has catalogued what he describes as a “cascade” of US government breakdowns since the mid-1980s and who is the author of 25 books on Congress, the executive branch, and the nonprofit sector, most recently The Government-Industrial Complex: Tracking the True Size of Government, 1984-2019 (Oxford University Press, 2019). Light was previously a director at the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Light’s research began after the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster of 1986 when he began tracking public interest in major government events. This data revealed a growing inventory of highly visible stories about federal government failures that Light has culled for patterns in the underlying causes of failure. His work continues to be based on inventories of significant events, but now focuses on understanding the underlying triggers that signal a potential breakdown.

There have been various attempts to streamline the government bureaucracy, dating back to the Reagan administration and followed up by the Clinton administration, but these and others were far from comprehensive or impactful, according to Light.

“And the question we are now, once again, facing is: What went wrong? The answer is: Almost everything went wrong, and almost everything that did go wrong had been foretold,” he says.

Here, Light explains his efforts to shed light on the federal government’s repeated blunders:

Q: President Trump came to power saying he was inheriting an “obsolete system.” Was he correct?

A: Trump might have been right to complain about that, but three years later, on January 22, he was declaring the fast-spreading coronavirus “totally under control.” Like his predecessors, he has not established a major commission to create a government with the firm leadership, resources, and speed to win. It was then 25 years since the last attempt at government retooling.

Q: You’ve identified 200-plus government breakdowns since the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster of January, 1986. What do these have in common?

A: Heedlessness. You can go down the list of recent failures chronologically, and they add up to a pretty convincing argument, I’d say, that something is very wrong with the independent branches and layered agencies of government.

We saw the denial of risk in the 2003 Shuttle Columbia launch, and the risky supply chains linked to the 2004 flu vaccine shortage, and the failure of initiative before Hurricane Katrina blew ashore in 2005. There was the “pervasive permissiveness” that sparked the 2008 financial crisis. And there were the shortcuts that caused the Deepwater Horizon blowout in 2010; the missed warnings before the Benghazi attacks in 2012 and the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013; the risky contracts, leadership vacuums, and “irrational optimism” that produced the HealthCare.gov meltdown of 2013. And there was the broken safety culture that produced the bio lab accidents at the Centers for Disease Control in 2014; the bureaucratic warfare that slowed the nation’s response to Ebola the same year; the exhaustion of capacity as the 2017 hurricane season turned toward Puerto Rico; and the failure to plan ahead in the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance immigration policy in 2018.

Q: But are some crises simply unavoidable—COVID-19, for one?

A: The war on COVID-19 may yet yield a great national achievement in new testing, drug development, and treatment regimens. But it has been more notable in mimicking the government’s greatest breakdowns of the past three decades, such as the “failures to imagine” that kept intelligence services from heading off the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Q: What about the enormous outrage touched off by the police killing of George Floyd? What is the role of the federal government in addressing police brutality?

A: Police misconduct is a problem that dates back decades. Yet if you look back, the Justice Department’s responses have rarely been concerted or decisive through its civil rights investigations or enforcement of court decrees. The misconduct and abuse have continued despite dozens of blue-ribbon reports, court orders, and grand promises.

Q: You’ve written that our government is caught in a “Catch 22.” Do you predict additional national crises soon?

A: Well, I’ll tell you one thing—I’d worry about FEMA’s response to the next hurricane. The agency is absolutely depleted right now.

Q: And the government may be unable to ensure voting access come November?

A: Oh my gosh, yes.

Q: Are there any federal agencies that are working well, based on your analysis?

A: I’d say the US Postal Service— their technology is better than 10 years ago and their leadership is strong. The Social Security Administration is also on time in its distribution of social security checks, and I was pleased to see NASA moving forward with last May’s successful launch. Americans still think very highly of both of those agencies and also give high marks to the Forest Service, Environmental Protection Agency, the CIA, and even the Internal Revenue Service. But Housing and Urban Development, Homeland Security, and the Transportation Department are broadly disliked. Most Americans still trust the CDC, but there are serious problems with the agency’s operations that must be fixed.

Q: So imagine you’re president. What needs to happen?

A: I’d give a major address about the need to make government work and bring that onto the agenda. Ronald Reagan was the last president to do a major study of government, through the Grace Commission. They generated hundreds of recommendations, none of which went anywhere. But we’ve got to put government management and reform back on the agenda, and it’s got to be more than “Let’s hire better people at the top” or “Let’s cut the workforce.” What we need is a commission to set the agenda to make these big bureaucracies agile again. Acknowledging that we have a problem that needs to be addressed would be a logical place to begin.

Source: NYU

This article was originally published in Futurity. Edits have been made to this republication. It has been republished under the Attribution 4.0 International license.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.