Legislatures and Good Management: an Oxymoron Revisited

Management reforms often seem to flounder on the shoals of legislative indifference and hostility.
by | May 9, 2007

Paul L. Posner

Director of the public administration program at George Mason University

At least since the 1990s, a wide range of results-based reforms in planning, budgeting, human capital and program management have been instituted at all levels of government. These reforms show considerable potential to improve performance and confidence in government.

However promising, management reforms have often seemed to flounder on the shoals of legislative indifference, or even hostility. It is often said that Congress and state legislatures as a whole never encourage or use performance information generated by agencies. At the federal level, for instance, appropriations committees have offered stiff resistance to the Bush Administration's Program Assessment Rating Tool to conduct performance-based ratings of programs.

Most reformers, accordingly, view legislatures as a proverbial thorn in the side of management reformers; some go so far as to argue that the legislature is part of the problem that needs to be fixed by management reform. In a culture where politicians and political decisions are viewed with suspicion, the work of legislatures has earned a reputation as being rife with such disreputable activities as horse trading, interest pandering and pork barreling.

Beyond policymaking, reformers assert that legislative "micromanagement" is a net detriment to good management and admonish legislatures to stick to their knitting by focusing on big policy questions while staying out of the knickers of managers. Some argue that legislatures should serve more as a board of directors, setting broad policy goals while "letting managers manage." Performance reformers have articulated a simple decision rule: legislative accountability should focus on results or outcomes, not inputs or how results are to be achieved.

This model may work in a parliamentary system, but would require nothing short of an institutional and political transplant for the American legislature. As Richard Neustadt used to say, we have a system of separated institutions sharing powers, and Congress routinely asserts its authority to share in executive powers, as the president does with legislation. In this environment, we have learned that a strong legislature will prefer control over both inputs and outcomes, because the means is often as important as the ends when it comes to public policy.

In a system with the strongest legislatures in the world, agencies must pay attention to at least two masters, and conflicting signals from chief executives and legislatures can produce paralysis and, ultimately, resistance to reform. Given this context, management reforms implemented unilaterally without legislative buy-in have little chance of long-term sustainability.

Thus, we have no choice but to work with legislatures to adopt management reforms that are consistent with, or at least not inconsistent with, the political interests of legislatures. Reformers may grit their teeth at this prospect, yet, in reality, legislatures have endorsed and even championed management reforms far more often than is commonly acknowledged. While members must always be focused on representing their districts and promoting their own re-election, members are also driven by the desire to create good policy. Legislatures are strongly motivated by the electoral connection; however, research shows that they are also avid consumers of analysis and information to reduce the risk that proposals will prove ineffectual or even harmful.

Moreover, Congress and some state legislatures have played a formative and surprising role in establishing management reforms through legislation. In critical areas ranging from performance management and information technology to financial management and acquisition reform, Congress passed wide-ranging reforms institutionalizing the development of new information and reporting in federal agencies. Were it not for this legislation, it is doubtful that such reforms would have gained the traction or survived the changes in administrations and parties that many have, in fact, done.

Reformers chafe that Congress fails to routinely use the new information; however, these reforms have established an infrastructure of information that legislatures can draw upon when it serves such political incentives as credit claiming, blame assignment and avoidance, and competition with the executive or other actors. Competition, in particular, is a powerful force in a separation-of-powers system, a dynamic that our founders hoped would handcuff and limit government. However, in our modern system, competition often prompts a race to the top, as executive and legislative actors vie with each other to champion new ideas, reforms and critiques of existing programs. Indeed, competition for public approbation and the avoidance of shame are the primary forces through which congressional oversight and reports change agencies' behavior.

While many analysts might not respect these as purely motivated initiatives to promote good governance, in fact, the road to heaven is often paved with "bad" intentions. We need to be far more savvy in working within our democratic political system rather than wishing for a system we do not, and perhaps should not, have.


More from Management Insights