Book Offers Prescription for Trimming Bureaucracy

Posted May 23, 2008 at 3:53pm

In the eyes of one Capitol Hill veteran and management guru, government inefficiency has grown to a level that is intolerable. So he has made it his mission to work toward a solution, in part by writing a book that contains advice for Congress.

While some readers may find the result pedantic, Paul Light’s experience working on the Hill and his research on management allow him to offer timely and substantive tips that may be of interest, especially to Members and staffers on government oversight committees.

In “A Government Ill Executed: The Decline of the Federal Service and How to Reverse It,” Light argues that the sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina, gridlock at the Social Security Administration and in passport bureaus, faulty intelligence about Iraq and a shortage of young civil servants all point to the worst breakdown in the history of the federal government. Using Alexander Hamilton’s seven measures for effective government, he charts how Congress can reinvigorate the federal service and put the government back on track.

“Members of Congress are going to have to get mad enough that they [decide they] need something comprehensive,” to resolve the problem, Light said in an interview.

Excess layers between the top and bottom of government are the main source of inefficiency, contributing to entangled bureaucracy and frustrated workers, according to Light.

“We’ve just got to restructure the federal hierarchy,” he said. “I think that’s the single most important thing we need to do.”

He recommends that Congress set up a committee or a special investigations panel like the 9/11 commission to analyze the government structure and give advice on how it can be streamlined.

The backlog of presidential appointees is another prime example of government inefficiency, Light said. He suggests reducing the number of presidential appointees and ensuring that the approval process takes no more than 60 days.

Another government excess is the rise of what he calls “the hidden work force” of contractors, grantees, and state and local employees. He believes it’s time for Congress to stop outsourcing government projects.

“Either feed the federal government the resources to do its job, or tell it what not to do,” he said. “Don’t hide cost by passing it on to contractors.”

In what might be a good sign for enacting change, Light said Capitol Hill has escaped some of the recruitment problems plaguing executive branch agencies, and has young, energetic staffers.

“I think most Congressional staff come to the Hill out of a desire to make a difference,” he said.

With the retirement of the baby boomers and with a new presidential administration on the horizon, now is a critical time for legislators to start thinking about changes, Light said. And they can find all the answers they need in the nation’s first government road map, “The Federalist Papers,” he added.

“Hamilton’s principles still rule,” he said.

Light was a fellow with the American Political Science Association for the late Rep. Barber Conable Jr. (R-N.Y.) and worked for former Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) as a special adviser and professional staffer on the Governmental Affairs Committee in the late 1980s. After serving as a fellow at the Brookings Institution, Light is now a professor at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.