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Q: What's going on with the government?
|A: It's a bit of mess (but obviously still gets things done), and in order to really understand it requires trusting someone to evaluate it—but we don't trust institutions like government so we're stuck in a vicious cycle.|
We all have an opinion about “the government.” We all feel some kind of way about what the government does and doesn't do, how it is run, and so on. But for the most part, these opinions are based on snapshots. On individual experiences we have when we stood in line at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, or the time we had to call the IRS to deal with a tax problem, or when a piece of mail took longer to arrive than we would have liked.
This is not a particularly good way to evaluate anything, much less the government. But it's hard to do anything else. So what's going on with the government, overall? How is it doing?
The short answer is, nobody really knows. It's not too hard to find examples of government functions that people find to be frustrating and inefficient. But is that the norm, the exception, or just what we're aware of?
This is a big and difficult question.
Your federal government is also asking the question: “how are we doing?” There's an entire website that you've never heard of devoted to this performance.gov, with videos and testimonials and progress reports. This is a joint project between the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the General Services Administration (GSA).
In addition to broader evaluations, individual departments, agencies, and groups do their own self-review. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) does ongoing performance reviews of itself. The Department of Justice (DOJ) has an Office of the Inspector General (OIG), whose job it is to audit various groups within the DOJ as well as conduct internal investigations. It's a bit like the Internal Affairs department you've heard referenced in every cop show on TV.
Not only does the Department of Justice have an OIG, but there are about 70 other inspectors general throughout the rest of the federal government. They all have another oversight group, the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE).
So there's lots of watchdogs within the government, all of which are churning out reports and advisories and making recommendations.
What do they say? It's a mixed bag. Some things are going well, other things are going poorly. It's hard to get a sense.
Plus, there is the problem of trust. If most Americans don't trust the government, then why would they trust the reviews of government being done by the government?
Scale and Focus
The reason that nobody really knows how the government is doing is that the level of analysis required is larger than we are currently investing. Back when I was working for a University as part of a grant-funded project, the refrain was always: “half of the budget on programs, and the other half of the budget on evaluating the impact of the programs.” The idea was that research means you are trying something new. Therefore to see to what degree it works, you must be willing to invest as much in analyzing the research as you do on conducting it.
Government programs aren't all research. Many of them have been around for decades (or longer). But look at the numbers: Just over two million civilians are employed by the federal government. How many of those people should be auditors, investigators, and reviewers? How many of them should be checking to see how well (or poorly) government work is going?
Maybe not half. But some of them. And from there, the next step is to identify the questions they will be answering
Accountability, Quality, and Perceptions
The biggest problem with government performance may be our opinions on it. If you ask people, there are a handful of common points of view:
- Government workers are overpaid
- Government workers are lazy
- Government workers are nearly impossible to fire
- Government services are inefficient and wasteful
Trying to analyze these statements doesn't provide much insight. Multiple independent reviews of the first question—about government worker pay—come to different conclusions. In fact most of what we have are anecdotes. As an independent consultant working with a state agency, I sat in a meeting once where an employee said the following words. “There's no rush. We work for the government, after all.”
Whether that is typical or not I cannot say. Lots of people, however, have these kinds of stories. And like much of life, the exception becomes the perception. Whether or not government workers are actually overpaid, lazy, or nearly impossible to fire doesn't matter much. Most people believe they are.
Building Trust and Confidence
If there should be a singular administrative goal, it is to build trust and confidence in government among the American people. That means accountability: identifying problems and fully addressing them. It also means telling the truth about what has not gone well and what we don't know.
Because it doesn't matter how well the government is doing if we don't believe in them. And that may be most significant issue of all. That's why telling the truth is fundamental to my campaign and who I am as a person.
I think that's why we're so frustrated with the government and politics. For the rest of us, the truth is part of everyday life. We don't like being lied to and we're constantly dealing with it.
It's long past time for the government and the politicians to be honest.