By Lee H. Hamilton
Whoever wins next November’s presidential election, it’s a sure bet that at some point he or she will vow to set the federal government on the straight and narrow. It’s a bracing sentiment. But you’ll want to take it with a grain of salt.
Our history is filled with remarkable government accomplishments. Our involvement in World War II and hands-on approach to the postwar reconstruction of Europe and Japan, our role in ending the Cold War, the Interstate Highway System, extending the right to vote to all our citizens . . . There’s a long list of crucially important efforts the federal government has executed well.
Yet every American ought also to be alarmed by an expanding list of missteps and blunders. In a report last month for the highly capable and too-little-noticed Volcker Alliance—whose goal is to improve government effectiveness—NYU Professor Paul C. Light drew attention to what he calls “a shocking acceleration in the federal government’s production of highly visible mistakes, miscalculations, and maladministration.”
A moment’s reflection will call to mind a sobering litany of failure, from the inability to stop the 9/11 attacks to shortfalls in the care of our veterans. The reasons range from muddled policy or insufficient resources to outright misconduct, but the question isn’t really what or who is to blame. It’s how we turn things around and reverse the accelerating pace of breakdowns.
To start, while a lot of hard work goes into creating policy on Capitol Hill and in the agencies, much less attention goes to how it will be carried out. Both branches need to focus on how they will assess effectiveness, anticipate problems, make sure that staffing is adequate, and provide necessary resources.
Second, if making policy today is complicated, so is implementing it. This means that we need skillful people within the government to carry it out, which means hiring them, retaining them, and making sure they’re held to account with well-conceived metrics.
Finally, too often these days the losers of a policy debate turn to torpedoing it. Some government failures aren’t the result of muddled policy, lack of leadership, or incompetence; they’re the result of what amounts to calculated sabotage. This needs to end.
Most Americans want government to work well. When a policy is adopted, it needs to be executed effectively. Whoever our next president turns out to be, let’s hope he or she takes that charge seriously.
Lee Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.