Reform Conservatism Should Tackle Public Sector

Published June 11, 2014


“Reform conservatism” is becoming, somewhat by default, the label of choice for journalists who want a short-hand term for the group of think tank researchers and former government officials pushing Republican policymakers to embrace a positive, energetic, and conservative domestic policy agenda. The ideas of those drawn to advancing such an agenda gained new prominence recently with the publication of Room to Grow–a book of essays from several of the group’s loosely-affiliated participants, sponsored by the YG Network.

The list of issues addressed in Room to Grow is expansive–everything from paying for college, to promoting energy production, to writing a family-friendly tax code, and helping the long-term unemployed find jobs. I was very pleased to contribute an essay on health care reform to the effort.

Room to Grow should be seen as providing an initial blueprint for how to revamp important areas of government policy–especially federal tax law and a few of the major entitlement programs. But it should not be seen as an exhaustive list of the reform agenda (certainly none of Room to Grow’s authors would see it that way). Indeed, the need for reform goes beyond changing policy–crucial as that is–to fundamental change in how the government is run and organized too (as a recent and compelling opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal noted).

Since about 1980, major institutions in American life, most especially large corporations, have undergone nearly continuous transformation, driven by the information technology revolution and the economic pressures of global competition. The result is a far more efficient private sector, focused on performance and results.

In addition, businesses have had to cope with rising consumer demands for convenience, transparency, and choice, driven by the internet. Today’s purchasers of products and services are not satisfied with one-size-fits-all options, offered at inconvenient times and locations. They want to be able to get what they want, when they want it, and with alterations to meet their specific preferences. The most successful companies have been willing to turn their established business practices upside down in an effort to meet consumer demands.

The government is different, of course. It is not competing for customer loyalty but should be faithfully administering programs and enforcing the law. Nonetheless, it is striking how dissatisfied the public is with the performance of the federal government. The Pew Research Center recently found that only 28 percent of Americans had a favorable view of the federal government, compared to 63 percent who viewed their local governments favorably.

The problem is not an understaffed workforce. Federal civilian employment is expected to reach 1.365 million people in 2015, up 160,000 since 2008. And that does not include the legions of workers who are housed in federal agencies but officially work for government contractors.

It is no coincidence that rising public dissatisfaction with federal performance coincides with decades of institutional rigidity. With the exception of the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the major departments and agencies of the federal government have not undergone a major reorganization since the immediate post-war period–nearly seven decades ago. And while the government has, in some cases, successfully moved toward more online interaction with the public, the initial failure of brought new focus to the government’s abysmal record of IT failures. From the FBI to the IRS to the Civil Service Pension System and the VA, the federal government has poured billions of dollars into automation efforts that were so flawed that they were never even completed.

Inertia rules inside the federal bureaucracy. Agency structures and business practices established decades ago remain in place because either no one has bothered to reexamine whether they make sense anymore, or political resistance has scared away all would-be reformers. The Social Security Administration continues to operate 1,250 field offices–nearly the same number that were in place three decades ago, before anyone could reach the agency over the internet. Overall, the federal government owns nearly 1 million buildings and other structures around the country, as well as 28 percent of all land.

There is no simple solution to the problem of an underperforming and bloated government, because the causes are multiple and complex. For starters, the authorizing laws for many programs and agencies are rigid and inflexible, and that is the way Congress likes it. House and Senate members are very reluctant to hand over more flexible management authority to the president, and especially so when the president is not a member of their political party. (President Obama’s recent assertions of unilateral authority to rewrite some of Obamacare’s key provisions has not helped build trust with Congress.) Federal personnel pay and performance policies also make it very difficult for the federal government to attract top IT and business management talent.

Still, a robust conservative reform agenda should not shy away from the challenge. Indeed, a strong plan to discipline government’s excesses and improve its performance is likely to be a must for all Republican presidential candidates in 2016.

A starting point for a compelling government reform agenda should include the following:

One-time Discretion to Reorganize Domestic Government. A newly-elected president could ask for time-limited authority to reorganize domestic agencies and consolidate duplicative programs. The requested authority could provide assurances that key departments and agencies would remain in place, but should allow the president to move sub-agency boxes as necessary to improve overall performance.

Transformation of High Citizen-Contact Agencies. Americans should be able to pay their taxes, track their Social Security earnings, see their Medicare bills, and get their needs-based benefits far faster and easier than they do today. Better IT is the key to making all of this happen sooner rather than later. Top IT talent from around the country should be tapped to map out an IT roadmap for high citizen-contact agencies, and then given the resources to make it happen. In the process, the president should be given the authority to eliminate unnecessary all of the duplicative bureaucracy that would be unnecessary with better government performance through online interaction.

Disposal of Unneeded Land and Property. The federal government owns far too much real property and assets that are underused in the economy. Whatever is not essential for government service, or real conservation and sensible public use, should be disposed of for use by the private sector. A tangible and realistic goal of asset disposal should be targeted to help capture the public’s imagination.

Broader Management Responsibility and Accountability. Top federal managers should be recruited for major operational agencies (and paid based on their credentials and experience, not the existing federal executive schedule) and then given the responsibility to substantially improve the performance of the agencies to which they are assigned. Among other things, these managers would have broader authority to move resources within their agencies and to go outside the established funding silos that inhibit effective management discretion today. Managers that underperformed could be replaced rapidly.

Presidents of both parties have promised in past campaigns to make modernization of government part of their governing agendas, but other issues have always pushed serious reform down the list of high priority items. The result has been more years of drift and uneven progress, which has created a major political opportunity for the next batch of presidential candidates. Most Americans implicitly understand that their national government is badly in need of a top-to-bottom review, covering everything from organizational structure to government contracting practices to pay policy. The presidential candidate who credibly pledges to tackle this very serious problem just might attract the attention of a grateful electorate.

James C. Capretta is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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