Last month the Obama administration rolled out something called the federal feedback button. Officials describe it as a Yelp-like way for people to give feedback on the service they get, including online. That is all well and good. People visiting federal websites should have a good experience, easy to navigate and returning the results they seek. I think for the most part they do. Still, you can never have too much feedback. Sites vary. Some are still tough to navigate. Others are right up there with the best of them. Some adapt perfectly to mobile devices, others have yet to be redone with responsive, mobile-aware coding. But on the whole, people responsible for federal websites care a lot about their work. One goal of the federal feedback button puts a little too much on the shoulders of Web managers. Specifically, the notion that better digital service and gimmicks like a website button can help restore faith in government. A lousy Web experience might reinforce the notion that government is incompetent if a visitor is inclined to think that way. Most people take a poor Web experience for what it is — a poor Web experience. To make an analogy, I’m highly loyal to the brand of car I drive. The company’s website is over-engineered and precious to the point of being annoying and hard to figure out. But that shakes my faith in its Web people, not in the car. Distrust of government stems from problems way deeper than digital service. All you have to do is scan the last few weeks’ headlines to see examples of what makes government sink in citizens’ estimation. None of these sources of mistrust will be remedied with the federal feedback button. Nor will they be fixed with simple- minded assertions about the efficiency or motivation of the federal workforce. Good people working in bad systems will produce bad results. The way to better, more trustworthy government is through fixing the systems and processes, and funding them adequately. Then you’ve got the tools necessary to hold people accountable. Here are my five picks for systems that need fixed to restore faith in government.
Fulfill FOIA requests. How many more decades must pass before federal agencies figure out a way to answer Freedom of Information Act requests within days or hours, and then fulfill most of them? A default to secrecy and withholding clings stubbornly. Just a month ago, the Center for Effective Government came out with another dreary accounting of agency FOIA performance. The open data movement, exemplified by data.gov and the hiring of a chief data officer at the Commerce Department are fine moves for helping untrap the government’s vast stores of data. But FOIA performance is a powerful indicator of how open the government is with respect to information people demonstrably want.
Get serious about not wasting money. The government spent $124 billion on improper payments in fiscal 2014. That’s two years’ worth of Overseas Contingency Operations budgets, or three years of operating the Homeland Security Department, or four years of the Energy Department. It’s around $350 for every American. The administration deserves credit for diligent efforts over the last few years to push improper payments down. But it’s like trying to suppress in your hands a balloon that’s connected to an air source.
Remind high (and low) officials to think before they act. A secretary of state used a rigged-up server to do four years of federal business then erased the whole thing. The deputy DHS secretary is found by the inspector general to have improperly intervened in staff work regarding visa clearances on behalf of politically connected individuals. A member of Congress spends $40,000 of somebody else’s money decorating his office. The Justice IG can hardly keep up with all of the misbehavior at law enforcement agencies. Not all the people in these episodes are bad or evil. Alejandro Mayorkas, the DHS deputy, contends that, in the case of the visas, he was expediting stalled applications. He has a distinguished record of public service, but golly, I wish he’d stopped for just a sec and looked at the expediting from a poor taxpaying schlub’s point of view.
Stop writing badly-worded laws. Like the VA overhaul bill that gives veterans living more than 40 miles from a VA facility the option of using private health care. Congress wrote in a provision telling VA to use geodesic measurement, meaning a 40-mile radius drawn by protractor around each VA facility. But people don’t drive like a crow flies, as Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson pointed out at a hearing. The whole thing made VA look goofy. It bewildered veterans. And it limited the utility of an expensive program. Now they’ll use online maps to calculate 40 miles even though that’s not really what the law says. Sloppy.
End backlogs. Good service means speedy service. Veterans Affairs has a first-time claims backlog of about 245,000. That’s a sharp reduction from its peak, but it’s not likely to disappear, even though the department has promised to tackle all of the cases by the end of the year. Social Security’s disability claims backlog runs close to 1 million. At the Patent and Trademark Office, the backlog of applications runs to more than 600,000. The people handling all of these claims aren’t lazy or incompetent. But they’re working in a system that makes them look that way.
The administration favors challenges and crowdsourcing ideas. Here are five persistent problems that, if rectified, would significantly increase faith in the competence of the government, and by extension, the people who work for it. These conditions persist not because government employees are bad or don’t care. It’s because they work in a culture that avoids risk and makes it easier to say “no” to an idea than to push it through to completion.
Tom Temin is host of The Federal Drive, which airs 6-9 a.m. on Federal News Radio (1500AM). This post was originally written for his personal blog Temin on Tech.