Paul Light’s government score card

Paul Light, a professor at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service, has written about government performance for 25 years. His new book, “A Government Ill Executed,” analyzes what he calls a crisis in government performance. He talked with former managing editor Florence Olsen about his book, the writings of Alexander Hamilton and a package of reforms that includes hiring 100,000 frontline federal workers.

FCW: What is it about “The Federalist Papers” that made you choose them as a model for your critique of government operations today?
LIGHT: Alexander Hamilton, more than any of the founders, gave a great deal of thought to how government would work. He developed a set of principles that he pursued once in office as the first secretary of the Treasury. Some of those principles have worked out well and are still relevant today, and others have had unintended consequences.

Hamilton believed in something called execution in detail. He set tight rules governing the Coast Guard [known in 1790 as the Revenue Cutter Service], custom houses and so forth, and for a tiny government at the time, that made a lot of sense. He demanded regular reports from the front lines of government about the implementation of the laws. For example, he wanted to make sure that all Coast Guard cutters carried a certain number of cannonballs.

Of course, over time the layers of rules have become quite stifling, which is one of the unintended consequences of Hamilton’s notions. But he did believe in an energetic federal service. He thought that federal employees were essential to the faithful execution of the laws, and that is still absolutely true. We really don’t treat federal employees as if they are essential. We talk about employees as essential on snow days. Hamilton would be offended by that notion, I think, because Hamilton believed that every federal employee would be essential.

FCW: How confident are you that replacing retiring baby boomers with more frontline employees could reform federal operations?
LIGHT: It’s part of a package of reforms. I don’t think the specific proposals will work in isolation. My view is that we ought to take the baby boomer jobs as they are exited and decide where we want to put them.

We’ve got this chance to revisit the hierarchy and put more workers on the front lines [for example, as safety inspectors of food, toys and airplanes]. Most of the scandals and breakdowns in government tend to involve the lack of frontline employees. My view is that we’ve got enough managers, and we’ve got too many layers of them. We don’t have enough frontline employees, and we’ve got to restock the pipeline of people who inspect the food, monitor contracts and do the computer programming. We’ve really got to confront that problem, and the baby boomer retirements give us that opportunity.

Rudy Giuliani during the campaign was saying, “Baby boomers [are] retiring. Let’s eliminate half the jobs.” My view is we’ve got all these baby boomers retiring. Let’s get the front lines fully stocked, and then we can talk about refilling the higher-level baby boomer jobs. Most people at the upper pay grades are baby boomers, some of whom were promoted during repeated pay freezes in the past 30 years because that’s how we tried to retain them.

FCW: In terms of outsourcing, do you think the concept of inherently governmental is still relevant and worth trying to preserve?
LIGHT: Absolutely. I think the term is poorly defined. Mitch Daniels, former director of the Office of Management and Budget, had the Yellow Pages rule: If you can find it in the Yellow Pages, it’s commercially available [and not inherently governmental]. Public/private job competitions are based on the notion that anything that is commercially available is just fine for government work. If you can find it in the private sector, it is eligible for competition.

I think there are inherently governmental jobs, and there are more of them than we report. Agencies are scared to use the Schedule A exemption [which protects small groups of employees from mandatory public/private job competitions]. NASA has worked very hard to protect its jobs through that exemption, but many agencies are intimidated by the job competitions. We really haven’t had a workable definition that can be consistently applied. The job competitions have been, for the most part, useless in helping us figure out where contracting out makes sense.

One of the things I do like about the job competition process is the most efficient organization — the MEO.

Of course, we ought to have most efficient organizations, but why do we restrict that only to job competitions? Why don’t we make all federal organizations most efficient organizations? Why is that something we do for a few thousand employees?

FCW: Has the federal government reached the end of the line in terms of the benefits it can gain from information technology?
LIGHT: I think you can always get productivity gains, but you can stretch the believability of how much you can get after a certain point. I don’t think we’re yet at that point. There are a lot of agencies that are still struggling to implement state-of-the-art systems — the Internal Revenue Service being a good example. IRS is still on [the Government Accountability Office’s] high-risk list because it hasn’t been able to get its customized system in place.

I think there are still productivity gains to be made. They are likely to be made if we have within government strong oversight of contractor activity, and I worry that the acquisition corps in government has been weakened to the point that it no longer has the needed capacity to oversee the acquisition of the best technologies for delivering services.

FCW: In the book, you criticize the accepted wisdom that the government must do more with less. Has IT made that possible?
LIGHT: Information technology has been responsible for significant productivity gains, but there is a limit to how much those productivity gains can compensate for losses at the front lines of government. Moreover, federal employees complain that they don’t have good access to information technology, and I tend to believe them. The technologies are not reaching the bottom of the agencies, in part because of budget restrictions. At the end of the day, computer technologies might help a food inspector do his or her job, but if you’ve got only a handful of food inspectors, does technology help you with that? Short of heavy investments in robotics, how does information technology help an immigration inspector do his or her job, and how can we make it possible?

We know that information technology will help the air traffic controller. Why does it take so long to get it? Information technology will help the IRS agent, but again, why does it take so long to get it?

FCW: You write that the federal government employs a workforce motivated more by pay, benefits and security than by the chance to make a difference, help people and pursue meaningful work. Is that observation based on your research?
LIGHT: A fair number of lower and mid-level employees say that they are motivated more by the compensation than by the chance to make a difference. The public believes that, too. We interviewed feds and asked them about life in their organizations. Then we interviewed nonprofit employees, and we interviewed business employees. Feds ended up looking more like business employees in their basic motivation than I think is appropriate.

Feds deserve a decent vacation, health benefits and a decent salary. That’s important. Young recruits are also dealing with the issue of paying off college loans. It may be feds are focusing on basic job security issues instead having a chance to make a difference because they’re frustrated by a lack of resources to do their jobs. That is one possible explanation. Let’s take the case of a food inspector at a slaughterhouse. He or she is working alone, doesn’t have much access to resources and is being pushed by political considerations to favor industry.

Maybe they eventually give up and start to say, “Look, I can’t really do my job, but I sure do like the benefits and pay.” And that’s really a bad situation for government. I want you to be motivated primarily by the chance to make a difference, and then we can talk about pay and benefits that are commensurate with your responsibility.

FCW: You write that the federal government is suffering its greatest crisis since it was founded. Does anyone besides you see the situation as dire?
LIGHT: I don’t know. This is a very tough message. I’ve been working on government reform for 25 years and have produced more blank stares than a dark movie screen. I’m trying to reach the presidential candidates who have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity right now to work together to produce some legislation to improve performance. This is the first time in modern history where we’ve had two candidates from the United States Senate.

[Republican Sen. John] McCain and [Democratic Sen. Barack] Obama could come together today and draft legislation to solve many of these problems. For example, they could make a commitment to hiring 100,000 new frontline employees next year. That would get the ball rolling. Cut the number of political appointees — that’s not hard to do. Reduce the number of management layers between the top and bottom. Create a special corps of young people who will enter government either at the beginning of their careers or at mid-career, so we can start replacing the baby boomers with the kind of talent we need.

FCW: Are federal lawmakers reading this book? Are the presumptive presidential candidates reading it?
LIGHT: I’d be quite naive if I believed they were paying attention to this particular issue. This is not the stuff of which presidential dreams are made. They don’t sit around saying, “How can we strengthen government? How can we make sure that the promises we make are delivered?” They just don’t do that.

I’m going to release a letter to the candidates in the next week or so, calling on them to act. I did raise the issue at an event [on June 9]. Obama’s campaign said they were looking at it — they were looking at cutting political appointees. But McCain, who actually introduced legislation three times in the 1990s to cut appointees, basically rejected the idea out of hand. I’m disappointed that his press people were so dismissive of an idea that actually originated with their candidate.

FCW: Is this book going to be your final word on government performance? Are you moving on to other topics?
LIGHT: I think I’ll spend my career banging my head against the wall. One of the messages I try to give in the book is the natural constituency for many of the reforms in this book are federal employees. They understand the problems. They want them fixed. They know what’s happening. They understand the layering problem. They know we’re having trouble recruiting young people. But it’s going to take a little bit of pain on their part, a little bit of pain on the part of the president and some action by Congress that may not be palatable. 

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