Shostack + Friends Blog Archive


The Next Unexpected Failure of Government

In looking at Frank Pasquale’s very interesting blog post “Secrecy & the Spill,” a phrase jumped out at me:

I have tried to give the Obama Administration the benefit of the doubt during the Gulf/BP oil disaster. There was a “grand ole party” at Interior for at least eight years. Many Republicans in Congress would have tried to block nominees for Interior who were committed to environmentalism. But the more I read about the controversy, the harder it gets to excuse current players for their actions.

Now, if you had told me six months ago that the Minerals Management Service was critically messed up, I might have searched a bit and said “sure, ok.” There are a lot of government agencies which are poorly run. Prioritizing between them is hard. Had you told me that their failure would cost a billion dollars, I’d have been more skeptical than usual.

Government is too big to clean out; at each level, you get appointees who are less likely to be interested in pursuing the President’s interest, and more likely to be interested in featherbedding. That’s not to say that all agencies are mis-run. There are still people out there who consider themselves civil servants who aim to run their agencies (or areas) well. I don’t have enough data to know what fraction of agencies are well run, but I expect that you could graph it and it would look a lot like a bell curve. Some good, some bad, most middling.

The agencies that are well run don’t get attention. The problems they face are ‘managed’ and don’t descend into crisis very much. Unfortunately it’s hard to tell, a-priori, if an agency is well run or lucky.

For any Administration to dig deeply into each of the government agencies could easily become an all-consuming issue. And it’s unclear if it would do any good. Agency executives are expected to be able to present a pleasant picture with a few things that need fixing.

This is a structural and systematic issue which emerges from how big government is and how much it tries to do. The only way to clean things up will be to reduce the size of government, so that prior oversight becomes a reasonable expectation.

Otherwise, we can look forward to the chaotic universe helping us discover where the problems emerge.

2 comments on "The Next Unexpected Failure of Government"

  • Frank says:

    Point taken! I should read more of Paul Light’s work (Gov’t Ill-Executed?) on how agencies can be reformed, and what’s par for the course for a good administration. But I do think that enviros were right to be suspicious of Ken Salazar at Interior.

  • beri says:

    It is not a matter of size. You can see similar problems in the governance of any city or town, if you look carefully. Mostly, we have to trust our government; there is no way to know exactly what goes on where or what is “broken” until it breaks very publicly. I see issues in the city where I live of 85,000. And then there is the issue of what you would eliminate in a smaller government.

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