Welton Chang is a Truman National Security Fellow, and a former Army intelligence officer and analytic methodologist at the Defense Intelligence Agency. (Courtesy Photo)
The U.S. Government can do amazing things when it wants to do them. NASA put a man on the moon and sent rovers to Mars. The defense and intelligence establishment tracked and killed a terrorist mastermind who didn’t want to be found. And Congress built an Interstate Highway System so deeply woven into the American way of life that it accounts for 24 percent of all highway travel despite totaling just 1 percent of public roads.
However, in the span of a few short months, we’ve learned that the Centers for Disease Control mishandled anthrax and smallpox, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration failed to follow up on a mysterious pattern of deaths involving GM vehicles, and that a number of clinics within the Department of Veterans Affairs system used alternative wait-lists to game patient wait-times. Additionally, a bi-partisan committee in Congress found that the deaths of a U.S. Ambassador and other U.S. personnel in Benghazi were “preventable.” The Internal Revenue Service did not do itself any favors by reporting that the emails of an executive at the center of a political firestorm were irrevocably erased as a result of standard operating procedures for inoperable computers.
How should we reconcile these competing perceptions of government—capable of amazing feats but simultaneously unable to perform routine tasks properly? The root cause of the aforementioned issues is current government culture and in order to fix it, bureaucracies should become more focused on results and reduce the tendency to be zealous about processes. Focusing more on outcomes leads to increased accountability for major lapses (NHTSA, State’s security arm, CDC) and lessens the tendency for blindly checking boxes (VA, IRS).
How did we get here? Eminent scholars of organizational behavior have studied the behavior of bureaucracies for ages. Organizations set up to administer needed services citizens have slowly morphed into solely self-serving entities. Success for most government managers is about retaining the most resources and getting promoted. This leads to an incentive structure that is misaligned with efficiently delivering services to citizens. The Government Accountability Office produces an annual report on reducing duplication within government. The numerous suggestions made could save taxpayers billions of dollars, however, only a minority of the suggestions are ever fully-addressed.
When the bureaucracy isn’t expanding, however, not making enemies becomes first priority. The culture of “getting along,” creates an environment where employees and managers value social harmony over problem solving. Such a collectivist mindset combined with an obsession with coloring between the lines results in the equivalent of blind ritualism. The assumption is that as long as the right boxes are checked, everything will be fine.
This assumption underpinned using patient wait-times as a metric and set the conditions for politicized keyword heuristics to be applied to tax form reviews. A singular focus on process also means that achieving outcomes takes a backseat. When accountability for outcomes falls to the wayside, people like Candice Anderson have their lives turned upside down, and not a single person from NHTSA has suffered professional consequences. Only recently did a CDC official resign (“voluntarily”) after the news about careless handling began to spread.
The world is much too complex for inflexible processes and routines and citizens should demand accountability for results. Government should not be allowed to give itself a pat on the back for generating mounds of paper. While some processes are important, especially those that fulfill legal and Constitutional requirements, line-level employees should be allowed to deviate from standard practices when necessary.
Supervisors must be given the latitude to reward actual accomplishments and outcomes, such as providing veterans good health care, rather than giving thumbs up for achieving meaningless metrics. When a senior NHTSA official recommended a deeper investigation into GM, the agency declined to do so, despite ample evidence to justify one; this decision is currently under investigation. The initial VA audit of performance metrics found that inappropriate wait-time practices were pervasive enough that the VA would be required to “re-examine its entire performance management system” (emphasis in the original).
To refocus the government on outcomes, not mindless paper-pushing, requires no less than cultural change started by personnel reform at the uppermost levels. Leaders set the tone for organizations, but the leaders of current agencies have just a 53 percent approval rating. Refocusing on outcomes goes hand in hand with talent management—as Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, insightfully points out, “Process-focus drives more talent out.” Reform also requires giving the government more resources to fix old IT systems, to attract talent, and to provide for an expanding U.S. population.
Critics of government say that the government doesn’t do anything right, so we should have less government. They want to have it both ways— they want the government to perform well, but they want to restrict governmental authority and reduce budgets. How exactly can the government do things the right way without adequate resources? The policy demands of the anti-government crowd are making the problems they loathe even worse. Improving government requires a two-pronged approach: making existing government more efficient by rewarding effectiveness as well as resourcing government appropriately so that it can be effective in the first place.
These solutions aren’t novel—they’ve been restated so often that it seems as though someone erased the memories of organizations and leaders who failed in the past. But rest assured there is one group of people who do not forget about these failures—the American people. According to a June 2014 Gallup poll, confidence in all three branches of government fell to some of the lowest levels of the last two decades. If government wants to regain the trust of the people, it must remember the times when it learned lessons from failure rather than try to forget about them as quickly as possible.