Beating Back Bureaucracy
When something goes wrong, the federal government has a knee-jerk reaction: Hire more people. Did airport security personnel (working under strict federal regulations) make mistakes on September 11? Well, the answer must be to create the TSA and staff it with many of the same people. Now, as federal employees, they'll do a better job.
If you say so.
Writing in the Washington Post, former George W. Bush-administration official John DiIulio takes the same point even farther down the road. The problem, he insists, isn't that today's federal government is too large. It's that today's federal government is too small.
"We don't need fewer federal workers; we need more of them -- a lot more. More direct public administration would result in better, smarter, more accountable government," he writes. DiIulio points out that much of the work being done by the federal government these days is actually done by contractors, not federal employees.
DiIulio seems to think that's a major problem. He highlights the failures of FEMA and HealthCare.gov -- the former poorly staffed, the latter too reliant on contractors, he says -- and points out that contractors often lobby for favorable spending policies in Washington. If the federal government would just hire more people, he reasons, it could replace all those contractors.
But that's looking at things the wrong way.
To begin with, the examples DiIulio employs do not hold up to scrutiny: FEMA's problem wasn't a lack of personnel; it was poor leadership ("heck of a job Brownie") and an impossible mission (trying to save a city that's below sea level from flooding during a hurricane). As for HealthCare.gov, the president and his secretary of health and human services didn't seem that engaged with it last fall. There's no reason to assume lesser federal employees would have been.
So, turn the question around: Why do we have so many federal employees if contractors are able to do the same jobs?
DiIulio writes that "the Energy Department spends about 90 percent of its annual budget on private contractors, who handle everything from radioactive-waste disposal to energy production." So why have an "Energy Department" at all? The federal government's tail is too long as it is. We could give private contractors the remaining 10 percent of the budget, give them 100 percent of the work, and reduce the federal bureaucracy.
Ah, but that's one thing that (almost) never happens.
"The percentage of federal workers fired every year by agencies fell from 0.57 percent in fiscal 2009 to 0.46 percent in 2013," reports the Federal Times, a newspaper aimed at federal workers. Meanwhile the private sector (where most of us toil) "fires nearly six times as many employees — about 3.2 percent." Want job security in these uncertain times? Go to work for Uncle Sam.
That fact undermines another of DiIulio's points: that federal employees would be more accountable than contractors. Contractors can be fired at any time if they're not getting the job done, just as those of us in the private sector can. Contracts can be canceled or not renewed -- and in fact, a key contractor involved with HealthCare.gov has been fired. A federal bureaucrat, though, is (almost) forever.
Clearly the U.S. needs bureaucratic reform. But that doesn't mean hiring more people who will remain on the payroll until they retire or die. Here's an idea: The Economist reports that New Zealand "has recast its civil service, creating departmental chief executives who sign three- or five-year contracts to meet specified targets." That's a way to force civil servants to produce without making the government larger.
Another reform would be for citizens to insist that government do less.
DiIulio writes that "beginning in the 1960s, the War on Poverty, the Vietnam War, and growing public demands for Washington to do more on issues from street crime and health care to environmental protection and veterans affairs led to government's expansion."
Well, the Vietnam War has been over for some decades now. We can end the federal portion of the War on Poverty by turning responsibility for welfare back over to states and private charities. Washington isn't capable of dealing with street crime, and seems to be making a hash of health care as well.
We should take a different lesson from DiIulio's piece than the one he tries to impart. The United States needs a smaller, more limited federal government.
Rich Tucker is a writer living in Northern Virginia. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.