Too Big to Manage

It’s not a new thought that the U. S. government might be too big to function properly. Even President Obama’s former advisor and go-to-man, David Axelrod commented that the government was too vast to expect the president to know what’s going on. That’s not quite the same as saying it can’t function. However, a recent op-ed in the Washington Post blends the two by declaring that the government lacks management skills. That’s pretty scary considering how much the government manages.

The point is made by William M. Daley, Commerce Secretary (1997-2000) under Bill Clinton and White House Chief of Staff for Barack Obama, 2011-12 and Linda J. Milmes, professor of public policy at Harvard University and chief financial officer, Department of Commerce, 1999-2001. They aren’t talking about themselves, but about the line managers throughout the federal bureaucracy and they attribute it to “the system”. That’s my phrase, not theirs.

Referring to the $400-600 million spent on the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare, DemoCare) web site noting that it doesn’t work,  not because the technology doesn’t work, but because the entire system was not properly managed. As they put it, government lacks basic management skills. And, that’s because key positions managing financial, technical, procurement affairs are not considered “glamorous”. Their word not mine.

Managers are measured in government by the ability to expand the department, number of employes and the size of the budget. No rewards are offered for doing more for less money or with fewer people. Not using up a budget is a no-no since that means next year’s budget might be cut. Little recognition by the press or politicians (and apparently not by administrative management) for success. It’s more of a blame game.

This system problem has led to other problem projects: the Coast Guard upgrade in its fleet that went from a $17 billion cost to $29 billion; the Homeland Security virtual fence project that had to be halted; a Department of Veterans Affair – Defense Department integration of data systems that has had numerous delays and dysfunction; and an IRS attempt to improve its electronic filing and refund system that hasn’t met expectations.

Their solutions include incentives for management skills, flexibility in management of resources, an incentive for saving money; working with state and local governments who disperse 25 per cent of the federal money, better budgeting performance and process by Congress; and consolidating over-lapping departments and vigorously evaluating and pruning poorly functioning or no longer relevant programs.

No argument here. But there might be some from politicians in both parties, special interests represented by both parties, and the bureaucrats themselves. Newton’s Law about a body in motion tends to stay in motion or, in this case, non-motion, unless an external force is applied to it. The question is how big a force and for how long can it be mustered to dislodge from its inertia an institution of millions of employes with a budget of  trillions of dollars?

In the meantime, government moves on and on, taking on larger projects and pretending they can manage them. Even privatization requires managing the out-sourcing and that starts with managing the procuring of the out-source and continuing through either the completion of a given project, or the perpetual monitoring of the out-source. In the end, whether in personal affairs, private business, or public business one has to know his limits and abilities.

That may or may not mean a much smaller federal government, but it certainly calls for a review of what government is capable of handling and what it’s not. Right now, it’s not a pretty picture.

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