You Can't Fix It If You Don't Raise the Hood

By Waldman, Amy | The Washington Monthly, July-August 1995 | Go to article overview
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You Can't Fix It If You Don't Raise the Hood

Waldman, Amy, The Washington Monthly

The Republican chopping block is overflowing. The Department of Energy can certainly go. Commerce, too, is dispensable. Education? We'll be better off without it, they say. For good measure, throw in Housing and Urban Development. Top it off with scores of smaller offices and programs. Government is big and inefficient, the argument goes, so slice away.

But do you have any idea what the agencies that are poised on the block--let alone the ones that aren't--actually do, or whether they do a good job? When did you last read an article that told you? If your answers are "No" and "A long time ago," don't feel bad: Nobody--including the most ardent of the Republican axe-wielders--knows enough about what these places do. Without that information, how can they make intelligent decisions about what to cut, and how to improve what remains?

Occasionally, it's true, a high-profile screw-up prompts the press to unearth important information about a government agency. Last year's American Eagle crash in Roselawn, Illinois, for example, prompted The New York Times and The Washington Post to run excellent investigations of the Federal Aviation Administration, highlighting the agency's poor track record in responding to safety concerns and the bureaucratic culture responsible. "A review of five years of FAA documents, plus interviews with dozens of officials, paints a picture of an agency that talks a lot about [how to handle different weather conditions] but doesn't get much done about it," the Post wrote. Yet this kind of article--a useful analysis of how government actually works--is far too rare.

What's truly mind-boggling, though, is that the government itself doesn't do much better. For any endeavor to work well, it must be regularly examined to make sure it's on the right track. Yet nobody examines, in a sustained and comprehensive way, how America's largest endeavor--the federal government--is doing.

The agencies themselves have little sense of what's going on either within their walls or out in the field, a problem that worsened in the eighties when Ronald Reagan whacked agency evaluation budgets. Since 1978, 33 agencies have established an Office of the Inspector General (IG)--but the IGs focus on policing administrative waste and fraud, bounding from one mini-crisis to another. The General Accounting Office (GAO), Congress's investigative arm, does valuable evaluative work. But because it mostly responds to specific Congressional requests, the light the GAO sheds on government operations is spotty. Thumb through a catalogue of GAO reports on, say, HUD, and you'll find a lot of fragmented evaluation of leadbased paint standards or management of the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority, but very little on the big picture. The GAO lacks the mandate to monitor agencies comprehensively from year to year.

Congress, the institution that spends the tax-payers' money, is also supposed to oversee how all that money is used. But when Congressional hearings do occur, they are usually anecdotal duels between Kafkaesque tales of constituents victimized by the government's bureaucracy and fuzzy stories of those touched by the government's munificence.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which is supposed to keep track of how well the government is being managed, instead spends most of its time number-crunching. It's also horribly understaffed: Just 201 examiners oversee an executive branch with $500 billion worth of programs.

The government, then, is flying blind, and the public knows almost nothing about what it is paying for. And so before anything can be fixed, somebody needs to start getting answers to these essential questions: What is a department doing? What is it trying to do? How well is it doing that job? And, most importantly, what should it be doing? Until we know, the biggest chopping block in the world isn't going to make government work any better.

Take the most basic of the questions: What is the agency actually doing?

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You Can't Fix It If You Don't Raise the Hood


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