Magazine article USA TODAY

Regulatory Agencies Can Be Effective

Magazine article USA TODAY

Regulatory Agencies Can Be Effective

Article excerpt

THE GENERAL impression, and often the correct one, is that governmental regulatory agencies are inefficient. The main reason usually given--and generally accepted--is that the funds available are not sufficient to recruit and maintain the quantity and the quality of personnel needed. especially professionals. This is only partly correct, but it is sufficient to allow regulatory agencies to perpetuate their inefficiency.

It is true that government salaries and benefits are consistently and substantially lower than those of the private and most of the academic sectors. Therefore. the latter are able to recruit the most successful, ambitious. motivated, and self-confident new professionals

The difference does not stop there, however. In contrast to these two sectors, regulatory agencies usually do not have experimental facilities where young professionals can gain hands-on experience to supplement their theoretical education and achieve the professional integration and maturity needed, particularly to become an effective regulator. Instead, new recruits are trained to follow regulations and guidelines with very little or no understanding of the actual work behind the reports or the strengths and limitations of the data they are to evaluate, interpret, and judge. It is typical to see data accepted or rejected primarily on the basis of their concordance with the guidelines, rather than their actual relevance. Because of lack of solid experience and technical self-confidence, these employees become malleable and obedient to their management's priorities and wishes. It doesn't take long for a new government employee to find out that obedience often is one of the basic attributes to a long and successful career.

Despite their shortcomings, after a few years of service with the government, the best of these recruits become attractive the regulated industry because of their familiarity with governmental practices and procedures. This leads to a constant drainage of the best government employees that further reduces the quality of the government's staff. In addition, because of the complexity of removing unproductive staff and the not-for-profit nature of the government, allowing it to afford much more compassion than the private sector, unproductive staff manage to perpetuate their employment.

Because of the difficulty to remove unproductive staff, managers often transfer them, or facilitate their transfer, within or between agencies. Some supervisors go so far as to provide good references in order to "unload" them. In the process of transferring, many of these employees end up in jobs unrelated to their backgrounds. For this and other reasons of mismanagement, it is not unusual to see a large proportion of the staff of supposedly highly specialized units lacking formal education and/or training in that particular field. While capable and productive employees with previous practical experience can be found in government, they are a minority. Unfortunately for the nation, even those workers have to adjust their standards to meet the appraisal criteria used by the government if they are to survive. Unlike the private sector, government has no objective performance criteria, such as profit or loss. Instead, performance primarily is appraised on quantity of work and, much too often, obedience. Quantity easily is measurable, even by an unqualified supervisor, and is a good display for a manager. Obedience to and support of the supervisor gives a sense (often a false one) of correctness of his or her decisions.

The question is: Can government become efficient and, if so, how? The answer is "yes," and money is not the main ingredient because there is never enough and, most important, it really can't do much. If the additional money were used to hire more inexperienced professionals, without ways to give them hands-on training, the government would end up with more of the same. …

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