A Credible Plan for Government Reform

We have reached an inflection point in American governance. Anger and cynicism about our government threaten to undermine the very institutions charged with managing the public trust — and not without good reason.

Americans pay one third of their lifetime wages in taxes. And what do we have to show for it? A massive bureaucracy that is ineffective, duplicative, and intrusive, yet protected and unaccountable. With a $3.7 trillion budget, the federal government regularly fails in spectacular fashion, with dollar totals exceeding the market capitalization of many U.S. corporations going to waste. The United States Post Office cannot deliver the mail without running a more than $15 billion deficit. FedEx, by contrast, earned $12 billion in 2015. 

Such waste and duplication make it difficult for our government — which borrows hundreds of billions of dollars annually just to make ends meet — to allocate funds efficiently to support critical national priorities such as defense, infrastructure, and our veterans. No shareholder in the private sector would put up with this; as collective shareholders in America, neither should we.

To regain the trust of the American people, we need a government worthy of the people.

Our first step must be to recognize that while we do not all agree on the proper size and scope of government, we should demand best-in-class service for those programs we do all commonly support. We should collectively insist that, as shareholders, any service we fund should be cost-effective, efficient, transparent, and, above all, accountable. This is a truism in every other aspect of our lives. Why not government, too?

Second, we must be honest about the shortcomings of past government reform efforts. Across-the-board spending cuts may be politically expedient, but they are misguided. Such an approach, which lumps the IRS with the National Park Service and the Department of Defense, is arbitrary and ineffective. Meanwhile, proposals to revise pay and benefits or to reorganize agencies and performance planning, however well intentioned, have failed to fix the the problems besetting our government.

Third, we must be bold. The federal government represents a decades-long accumulation of laws, regulations, and policies — a virtually impenetrable interlocking network of rules that can stifle new initiatives and reforms before they can begin.  

One need look no further than Affordable Care Act’s internet-based health care exchange. The ACA was arguably the single biggest priority of the Obama administration. And yet, with three and a half years of lead time and over $2 billion in funds, the Department of Health and Human Services could not deploy a functioning website when the exchange opened for business in October 2013. Imagine what Apple or eBay or Amazon could have accomplished with the same amount of money? It’s hard to imagine a greater indictment of federal contracting rules.

A credible reform plan should begin with something truly unprecedented: a congressional authorization providing the president with “notwithstanding” authority. This would allow the president to suspend any and all rules — personnel, policy, and procurement — in order to reshape a more accountable bureaucracy. Once in place, Congress would have a voice in final implementation through an up-or-down approval vote but without the ability to make reform-killing amendments.

Such a move would doubtless be controversial, and special interests — from public unions to corporations with fat government contracts — would cry foul. But tough medicine is needed to fix a broken system.

If we follow these three rules, we could institute a wave of change that will reform our federal government fundamentally. We could leverage technology and pioneering organizational processes and methods to create new efficiencies and cut costs. We could free the “captive value” of those high-quality federal workers currently trapped in a maze of rules and regulations that inhibit their ability to contribute to public service. We could give the American people a government that reflects what’s best in them, whose overriding objective is serving citizens, not special interests.

Let’s end the era of lowest-common-denominator government and restore the American people’s confidence in our Republic.

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