Has the government done a good enough job updating itself?

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The past decade has not been kind to the public’s sense of trust in government. Citizens deeply doubt whether government can deliver on basic promises, basic functions. A related problem is the seemingly diminishing sense of good governance – is the government continuously improving its own processes and competence? Now a book of essays by some well known good government voices offers a long list of ideas for improving things. Its editor, Professor Emeritus of the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University James Perry, joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript: 

Tom Temin: Dr. Perry, good to have you one.

James Perry: Thanks, good to be with you, Tom.

Tom Temin: So does the world need another good government book at this time?

James Perry: Well, if we had good government, we wouldn’t need another good government book. But I would say that we’re in desperate need and I think we’re in desperate need to sort of understand what the problem is, or what the problems are, and to try to remedy them, which is consistent with our long-term political culture.

Tom Temin: So briefly, the central purpose of this book, you said there are two main themes that you explore through these essays by some of the esteemed writers.

James Perry: Yeah, I would say I think you’ve sort of already hit the nail on the head. The central purpose, is what I would call a clear-eyed assessment of governance in America. And we give special attention to the federal government as our national government. We pay probably less attention – although we certainly do touch upon the federal system – but clearly the focus is on the federal government. And the book is organized, actually, in about, in three parts with one or two pieces of introduction. I provide an introductory essay for the book, Paul light, you know, well known scholar of good government and public administration, provides an assessment of where the federal government today stands. And Paul uses some of the lenses he’s used over the years in other books he’s done on inspectors general and performance and other facets of the federal government to say, “Where do things stand currently? What is the state of governance or federal performance?” as sort of a prelude to three parts in the book. The first part is really on disruptions, talking about technology, the changing political landscape. The second part is on our institutions themselves, and whether those institutions are capable of righting the ship. And if they are capable righting the ship, which direction do we need to take them? And then finally, we have a number of blended contributions from experts on sort of the personnel systems and other facets of what needs to be changed, including public leadership in America.

Tom Temin: Now you have a thesis that you do state in your opening to the book, and that says that the capacity for performance and the need for reform are veering in opposite directions. Tell us what you mean by that?

James Perry: Well, clearly, our governance system and governance is used as a broad term to reflect both sort of administrative capacity as well as our ability to make effective political decisions. But the system I think, is perceived by many people as broken. Many people are frustrated with it, they also see – often see the system is unresponsive. Now, this is not sort of a new narrative. If we, for instance, turn the clock back 40 years to the civil service Reform Act of 1978 we see this idea of unresponsiveness. But I think you sort of touched on one facet of it and that is that our government is failing more frequently than once did. Paul Light has been a great commentator about both our successes and our failures, our breakdown. And in an earlier essay, Paul wrote about the 50 successes of the federal government going back to the Second World War. Since the year 2000 he’s documented more than three dozen, I think about four dozen major breakdowns. So we see sort of this evolution of government moving from one that’s effective and performing an admirable level to move our society forward to one that is continually failing. So clearly, people are frustrated about government’s ability to perform consistent with its past performance. But there’s other issues. For instance, AI, social media, and public sentiment are changing rapidly, probably more rapidly than any time in our prior history. And so people are also frustrated by, not only is government breaking down, but we’re also encountering bigger challenges. And so how do we keep up, particularly when we’ve fallen short? And then the final part is whether we have sufficient intellectual capital to make the changes we need to make. One of our contributors, Don Kettl, writes about our broken civil service system. You know, the civil service system has been on the GAO high risk list for almost 20 years, but we haven’t remedied that. And the question is, do we have the answers to remedy its failures and shortcomings. So all those collectively have sort of moved our governance system in a negative direction. At the same time, American citizens are dedicated and obsessive about the need for government to work effectively, for our governance system to work. And people are becoming more frustrated – that is, Paul Light points out, we’ve had significant disinvestment. The disinvestment in our federal administrative capacity has made it more difficult to right the ship. At the same time, people are looking for changes, but they’re not very optimistic that the changes are going to be effective, because of that disinvestment and the continuing failures. We’re veering in two different and unfortunately, directions that really do not bode well for the future.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with James Perry. He’s a professor emeritus at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University, and editor of “Public Service and Good Governance for the Twenty-First Century.” We should point out that book was published recently under the auspices of the Volcker Alliance. And one of the chapters talks about the hollowing out of the career staff. And that brought up a question: The number of federal employees has been pretty stable for 40-50 years – since the Kennedy administration, if anything, it went down by a couple of hundred thousand permanently during the Clinton administration, and probably the pandemic added another 50,000. We don’t know how many permanent. So in terms of numbers, it’s not being hollowed out. Could it be that the Congress and the American public are making too much demands on the federal government for services and products that might be better served from other sources?

James Perry: I don’t think that’s the case. Matter of fact, you are right, though, Tom, that the number of federal employees per million citizens or per hundred thousand citizens has been declining, I think steadily for 50 years. Clearly, the Clinton administration made some reductions in the federal workforce. I think those positions have come back. But the reality is that we’ve had a fairly lean administrative personnel apparatus for many, many years. Now, the argument that Paul Verkuil, among others, and this is an argument that comes up frequently in the course of the book – and Paul was for five years the chair of the Administrative Conference of the [United States] so he’s a very accomplished and knowledgeable individual about the status of federal civil service and the capacity, particularly on the human resource side, to fulfill the needs of the federal government. But you know, basically, we’ve had trouble, as I mentioned, the civil service system has been on the high risk list for 20 years. The changes I referred to earlier, particularly on the technology side, in terms of cybersecurity and other factors and other considerations that the federal government is integral to the federal mission, and the federal mission is diminished. Significantly, I would say over the last 20 or 30 years, it’s been more focused and turn more to the States, in part because beginning in the 1970s, the capacity of the states increased considerably. But the reality is that we are short important talent. But I think it’s also important to sort of acknowledge the hollowing out has occurred at two levels. One, it’s occurred with respect to the competencies of the Federal workforce. We’ve also turned over some of those competencies to contractors and others. We are hoping that they work in a coordinated fashion with the career civil service but we know sometimes bringing those different elements together, both the contractors and the careers is difficult, but we’ve also sort of lost talent. But you know, that’s one facet of it. We’ve hollowed out in that respect, but we’ve also I think diminished our capacity for effective federal systems. Again, pointing to personnel is one of them. But we have a variety of others and of course, one of the other disruptions that’s discussed in the book is the political disruption. For instance, “60 Minutes” had a piece on the border wall, and the contractors who are being funded to build the border wall. Those decisions were being made increasingly from the White House, and less from sort of the career of bureaucracy from the career apparatus that was in place. Now, some people will call that the deep state, I would call that competent administration – administration that relies on the dedication and competence of its civil servants to do the right thing. But that’s been complicated over the last three-plus years by sort of a different vision of sort of our political future.

Tom Temin: Ultimately, it comes down to the people that are in government, and they have to be the right people with the right intellectual capacity, obviously, but they also have to be the people with the right motivation. And the workforce itself has to be free of political consideration. And there’s some evidence that that hasn’t been the case either, that maybe some return to a basic premise here is what’s needed.

James Perry: My view is that most of our federal civil servants are highly dedicated and committed to nonpartisan decision-making, what we’ve historically called in public administration “political neutrality,” and I believe that’s the case. But I think we also have to respect their motivations, their sense of public service. I think public service is sort of a core idea in American government. And clearly one of the reasons we wrote the book was to recognize Paul Volcker’s many years. The book started out as a 90th birthday celebration for Paul Volcker. Paul Volcker was one of the gems of American civil service and bureaucratic eminence, that is, Paul led us out of a period of high inflation in the late 1970s, brought us I think to this era where we have low inflation and great sort of economic performance not fettered by the inflation that troubled us during most of the 1970s. But Paul is an example of I think, many of the people who work in our federal civil service – our public service – and they’re sort of dedicated, they’re competent, and they have made a difference over the years. And you know, as Paul Light points out in the book, disinvestment in what made things work properly, made things work successfully is the reason we have a problem today. And the reason we have a problem today is not because of misbehavior of our civil servants, but it’s because we’ve forgotten what’s made us great. And if we want to be great again, we need to have a great federal civil service.

Tom Temin: Dr. James Perry is professor emeritus at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University. He’s also editor of “Public Service and Good Governance for the Twenty-First Century.” Thanks so much for joining me.

James Perry: Tom, great to be with you this morning.

Tom Temin: We’ll post this interview at www.FederalNewsNetwork.com/FederalDrive. Hear the Federal Drive on demand. Subscribe at Apple Podcasts or Podcastone.

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