How Government Fails

The Affordable Care Act and Ferguson have some troubling things in common.
December 8, 2014
By Richard Clay Wilson Jr.  |  Contributor
Retired city manager of Santa Cruz, Calif.

The travails of the Affordable Care Act and Ferguson, Mo., are highly instructive examples of two separate and distinct kinds of failure on the part of government.

First, the ACA and Ferguson sagas constitute political failures. The highest political value is, and must be, to represent. This is how democracies work. When elected officials fail to represent, they find themselves replaced. It is popular to say that politicians should lead, but political reality cautions against leading where voters won't follow.

The merits of the federal health-care law aside, it is clear that the elected officials who supported and enacted it failed to obtain the consent of the governed. What this failure will mean over the long term is not yet known. In the short term, at least, it contributed in some measure to the defeat of some of the ACA's proponents in this fall's midterm congressional elections. (To this observer, it is astounding that the elected officials who believed their enactment of the ACA to be an historic achievement did so little to bring voters and the public along with them.)

In Ferguson, it is manifest that the city's elected officials failed to represent a significant number of city residents in any way, shape or form. These elected officials dared not set foot on a great many of their own city's streets. As a result, as everyone in the country could witness, a substantial portion of the people of Ferguson did not feel represented at all. This is a political failure of the most basic sort. It meant that, when circumstances required trust between the governed and those who govern, there was none. It is the classic recipe for meltdown.

Second, our examples reveal managerial failures. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was unable to implement the ACA without headline-generating lapses. The agency did not see its difficulties coming. It had, after all, complied with the administrative rules, regulations and long-established practices of the federal government. Who would have thought things could go so wrong?

But management at HHS had a duty to anticipate the difficulties of implementation and to obtain the authority needed to overcome them. If full implementation was more than it could achieve in the time it was given, HHS had a duty to say so. Finally, HHS had a duty to advise the public about the difficulties such a major system overhaul would entail. All of these were duties unrelated to the merits of the ACA or the political struggles about it.

In Ferguson, the police department had long failed to serve the most disaffected people and neighborhoods. But it is inarguable that the police department was duty-bound to provide law-enforcement services throughout the city. Moreover, those not being served were those who needed it most; service would have been welcomed. Professional law enforcement is rich in values and practices essential to a decent public order. Whether or not elected officials are welcome in a neighborhood, law enforcement must be. When police officers are regarded as outside occupiers, a police management failure has occurred.

In sum, the stories of the ACA and Ferguson feature four separate and distinct failures on the part of four sets of people operating in four different environments. Two of the failures belong to elected officials, which makes them political failures. The other two are institutional failures, which redound to management.

The management-averse nature of the federal government is a mitigating circumstance in terms of the ACA: No one is granted the real authority to manage the departments of the federal government. Nevertheless, those who were charged with implementing the health-care law had an obligation to anticipate, and sound off loud and clear about, what would unfold, and they didn't.

In Ferguson, there are no mitigating factors. Police departments have a fundamental duty to establish constructive working relationships with the communities they serve. This duty has nothing to do with who holds political office, nor does it have anything to do with the race or residency of police officers. The Ferguson police department was obligated to serve the entire city, and it didn't. The department's management must bear responsibility.

Political failures such as those chronicled here do not lend themselves to remedies other than the next election, nor should they. Managerial failures, on the other hand, ought to be fixed. At every level -- federal, state and local -- our institutions of government are capable of better. If we want to avail ourselves of better, however, we will have to attend to management. Unfortunately, there is little, if any, interest in doing any such thing. That's the worst failure of all.


VOICES is curated by the Governing Institute, which seeks out practitioners and observers whose perspective and insight add to the public conversation about state and local government. For more information or to submit an article to be considered for publication, please contact editor John Martin.