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Want to Defend Government? Make It Work Better

David Callahan

Progressives focus a lot on the need to "defend" government. But we can be curiously indifferent to the urgent task of making government work better -- and, in fact, have a long history of treating such efforts with suspicion. In that sense, progressives share blame for the debacle -- an episode that showcases why fixing a dysfunctional public sector needs to be near the top of the progressive "to do" list. 

Anyone familiar with the federal contracting system is not especially surprised that the bombed. I noted here the other day that less than 40 percent of private sector IT projects are successful. But the numbers for government are far worse. As Clay Johnson and Harper Reed note today in the New York Times: is only the latest episode in a string of information technology debacles by the federal government. Indeed, according to the research firm the Standish Group, 94 percent of large federal information technology projects over the past 10 years were unsuccessful — more than half were delayed, over budget, or didn’t meet user expectations, and 41.4 percent failed completely.

Those numbers are appalling, given that IT systems have become central to much of what government does -- or aspires to do -- in our modern age. And the waste of resources is mind-boggling, like the $722 million that New York City poured into a failed payroll system. Or, worse, the over $3 billion that the Pentagon spent on two healthcare IT systems that never worked properly. 

It's common to blame greedy private contractors for these disasters, and they share much of the blame, for sure. But a big reason these contractors get public business is because government procurement rules are too complicated for smaller businesses to navigate. 

Many people wonder how tech-savvy Team Obama could screw up the President's signature initiative by fielding a flawed website. Aren't these the same folks who built the most sophisticated campaign IT system in history? Well, no, they are not. As Johnson and Reed point out, the Obama campaign could hire any private contractors they wanted, including small and nimble vendors operating on the cutting edge.

But that wasn't the case for Health and Human Services:

The government has to follow a code called the Federal Acquisition Regulation, which is more than 1,800 pages of legalese that all but ensure that the companies that win government contracts, like the ones put out to build, are those that can navigate the regulations best, but not necessarily do the best job.

And the procurement process wasn't the only problem here. The Affordable Care Act is being implemented by a federal government that is notorious for having a multiplicity of agencies with overlapping jurisdictions and poor mechanisms for coordination and accountability.

Over a dozen different agencies are involved in making Obamacare work -- which is no surprise in a town where at least 17 different intelligence agencies are working to keep the country safe, numerous agencies work on trade and export policy, numerous on job training, and so on. 

Oh, and did I mention that it's almost impossible to fire career federal workers - putting supervisors in the public sector in a situation that no president of a progressive NGO would ever tolerate. This also increases the attractiveness of outside vendors. 

Of course, none of this dysfunctionality is breaking news. Paul Volcker chaired a national commission on public service a decade ago that drew a picture of a byzantine federal nightmare that drives many ambitious would-be public servants screaming from the room. 

You'd think that progressives would be focused laser-like on fixing these problems. After all, we see government as an all-important agent of change. 

And, in some respects, progressive have been focused on making government more effective -- leading innumerable efforts over decades to reduce the influence of special interests over government, increase transparency and accountability, and so on. Groups like the Center for Effective Government and the Project on Government Oversight, among others, do great work. 

What's often been missing here, though, are efforts to streamline the day-to-day ways that the government agencies operate. The Clinton-Gore campaign to reinvent government was largely dismissed by progressives, who viewed it as more centrist DLC nonsense. And a somewhat similar push under Obama, led by Cass Sunstein, was viewed with deep suspicion (granted, for some good reasons).

Progressives tend to reflexively defend regulation -- even as examples abound of utterly inane forms of red tape. The government procurement system is a perfect example. One reason there are 1,800 pages of legalese is that, over the years, the system has been used to achieve various policy goals such as helping minority businesses or ensuring employment opportunities for veterans. Important goals, to be sure, but is the contracting process the right venue? All vendors must show their compliance with these and other stipulations, spending huge amounts of time and resources to do so.

So, twenty years after Clinton's effort to streamline and improve government foundered amid indifference, here we are, exactly nowhere, with a disastrous rollout for the most important government social program in 50 years. 

Yes, the right is the principal enemy of government these days. But the progressive attitude toward the mechanics of government reminds me of that saying: "With friends like these, who needs enemies?"