Public trust in government starts with effective management

Article Highlights

  • The public’s trust in government has been in steady decline

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  • Bureaucratic encumbrances to“fix”scandals hamstring the ability of the government to perform

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  • If we are to restore public trust in government, we should look to the bipartisan efforts at reform that were made in the 1990s

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The public’s trust in government has been steadily declining since its last high shortly after the 9/11 attacks, and is now nearing an all-time low. As this October poll—taken prior to the troubled rollout of the Healthcare.gov website—shows, public trust in government could now be even lower.

This trend should probably take no one by surprise in an era of unconstrained partisanship and fiscal crisis. Last year, former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker established an organization to address this dramatic drop in public trust, but it will require a Herculean effort to turn around public opinion. The road will be long, but those who want to address the situation may find that the first step is to look for potential answers in the recent history of public management and oversight.

The irony of the current situation is that those who most want government to succeed are finding it impossible to effectively execute programs. One reason for this disconnect is that the lessons learned during the Clinton Administration’s government management reforms have been essentially forgotten. Policymakers continue to focus on expanding government missions and responsibilities—whether in the national security or domestic policy realms—without ever adequately focusing on the mechanisms used to execute programs, such as acquisition, personnel, financial management, information management, and performance management. This is a recipe for failure, and will only grow the public’s distrust in the ability of government to perform any function without wasting massive amounts of taxpayer dollars.

Another factor that has been forgotten is that politically directed oversight of management issues to achieve policy gains erodes public trust in government and causes all boats to sink. The Obama Administration is currently reaping the results of an effort launched in 2003 to discredit the Bush Administration’s“Global War on Terrorism.”A once legitimate policy difference about how to react to terrorist threats morphed into an unbalanced focus to tarnish the Iraq war effort’s management practices with the glaze of corruption, sleaze, sole-source contracts, and wartime profiteering. While the Pentagon no doubt has its share of management problems, it still can be argued that it is one of the better-managed organizations in government, with many agencies aspiring to perform at DOD levels. Undermining credibility in defense management undermines credibility in the government as a whole.

Opposition to the Iraq War initially played out in a proxy battle about poor Pentagon acquisition and management practices. Cases of fraud were highlighted to discredit the policy and undermine support for the war. This was a highly successful tactical operation but one that is now strategically backfiring on its supporters. There is always going to be a certain level of fraud in a war zone, as there will be in peacetime defense operations and domestic programs. Examples of the latter can be seen in the recent bribery case related to Navy port contracts in Southeast Asia, or the continuing arrests as a result of the work of the Medicare Fraud Strike Task Force. The key management concern should be whether there are adequate controls and law enforcement mechanisms in place to limit and deter illegal behavior and put criminals who cheat the government in jail.

If fraudulent cases uncovered by investigators are sensationalized for political ends and not put into context, the perception that corruption is widespread and endemic will develop. This is now the case. This perception undermines the public trust in government policies and support for current, let alone increased budgets. The tactics employed on Iraq contracting oversight offers a roadmap on how to discredit and undermine support for domestic programs, which opponents of the Obama Administration’s expansive health care policy will no doubt come to appreciate.

But the situation is made worse as each outcome of politically directed oversight requires a legislative or administrative action that impacts the ability of the government to execute future defense and domestic programs. Bureaucratic encumbrances to“fix”scandals hamstring the ability of the government to perform. This was seen when Iraq wartime contracting scandals led to new legislative and regulatory constraints that overturned many of the Clinton-era management reforms. It is not that difficult to argue that these same management constraints and the corresponding government-wide risk averse environment that has developed in the last five years were factors in the inability of the Obama Administration to effectively acquire and manage the rollout of the Obamacare website.

There have been a few upticks in public trust in the last 50 years. The first occurred around the beginning of the Reagan Administration. This support plateaued and began to decline as procurement and other scandals (Operation Ill-Wind, WedTech, spare parts overcharging and the $600 toilet seat) began to take its toll on the public’s trust. This decline continued except for a brief spike in support during the first Gulf War in 1989 until it reached a new low in 1994. It was at this point that the Clinton Administration and Congress tacitly limited government bashing, put cases of fraud, waste and abuse in context and began to focus on streamlining and improving government management and procurement. Public trust in government dramatically improved.

If we are to restore public trust in government, we should look to the bipartisan efforts at reform that were made in the 1990s. This required a rescoping of what the government should do and a multi-year focus on the nuts and bolts of government under the guise of the National Performance Review. The success of government is not how big it is, but how well it performs. One of the lessons of the 1990s-era reforms was that the government could actually be smaller and do things better if time was spent on management policy. The reforms also required several years of focused high-level political support to achieve. It may be too late for the current administration to sustain such an effort, but it is not too late to begin.

William Greenwalt is a visiting fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies.

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William C.
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