Beyond Tinkering


Dr. Paul LightHere’s some Springsteen music to listen to as you read this blog entry . . .


New York University Professor Paul Light is never one for being shy or subtle about his thoughts on the need for – and ways to – reform government.  In his latest book, “A Government Ill-Executed:  The Decline of the Federal Service and How to Reverse It,” he says it is “past the time for tinkering” and he’s now out and about talking about it.  This morning I heard him talk at the National Academy for Public Administration about how “breakdowns are coming at a greater velocity,” citing Katrina, shuttles, and contracting mis-steps.  He claims the administrative infrastructure is steadily weakening and points to a number of symptoms, such as delays in the political appointment process, increased layers of management, and the retirement (and recruitment) wave that is currently altering the government workforce.


He offers some specific recommendations, such as reducing the number and layers of managers by half and shifting those positions to the front lines; and cutting the number of political appointees in half and abolishing any political position not filled within six months.  In fact, he called on both presidential candidates to team up and pass legislation in the next six weeks to fix the broken presidential appointment-Senate confirmation process, noting that both candidates have an equal stake in being able to effectively run the government if they were to win.  He notes: “This is a great year to do these kinds of reforms.”  After all, how many prospective appointees will want to respond to a 250-question set of forms as a starting lesson for how government works. . . . and have to use a typewriter for some of those forms??


But these recommendations are tinkering.  He also recommends sorting out programs to eliminate duplication and overlap, and deciding what the government should keep doing and what it should stop doing.  To do this, he recommends creating a commission that would have the power to send reform recommendations to Congress for an up-or-down vote.


Commission recommendations have been made in the past.  In fact, Dr. Light had a hand in an attempt to establish a government reform commission in 1988 when he worked on the staff of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.  A provision was tacked on to the end of the bill creating the Department of Veterans Affairs to create a reform commission.  The provision was intended to be a tool for the new president, but president-elect George H.W. Bush expressed no interest in such as commission so the provision did not take effect.


There have been subsequent efforts to create a reform commission.  Dr. Hannah Sistare wrote a report for the IBM Center several years ago describing alternative approaches.  Congressman Edward Royce currently has a bill pending before the House, where there has been no action.  The Administration proposed a Sunset Commission to examine the government agency-by-agency; again, no action.


The past two presidents have declined to pursue a comprehensive commission approach. Institutionally, commissions can reduce their influence and put their agendas in a suspended state of animation while awaiting results.  However, each took their own incremental approaches to government reform.  President Bill Clinton created the National Performance Review and President George W. Bush created the President’s Management Agenda.  My colleague Jonathan Breul and I co-authored an article comparing those two efforts in the Spring 2008 issue of the IBM Center’s magazine.  We found that while both were incremental in approach, they have had long-term impacts.


Like Dr. Light, the Government Accountability Office recommends a fundamental re-examination of the base of federal programs and identified twelve specific areas for review.  While both presidential candidates are calling for reform, neither has endorsed the creation of a commission as a way to pursue comprehensive reform.  The presidential campaign will likely define the level of urgency facing the next president, and whether we need comprehensive reforms or incremental reforms.  Which do you think it will be?

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2 Responses to “Beyond Tinkering”

  1. Norman M. Macdonald Says:

    After about six generations since the Hoover Commission look at what has been spawned to be a later day version. Still with top down thinking while we are in an era where collaboration is in the forefront; the top down approach doesn’t work. I would suggest an informal survey of current collaborative efforts that involve specific field elements of the Federal Government. Working from the survey have selected efforts do a 360 degree assessment of how they operate. The results will give direction on how to encourage positive collaboration between all elements of society.

  2. Dejan Stamenkovic Says:

    I completely agree with Mr. Norman M. Macdonald.

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