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The Myth That More Rules and Oversight Can Fix Government

The real problem is this: Public management doesn't have the kind of authority that's taken for granted in the private sector.

When things go awry in for-profit and non-profit organizations, the operative working assumption is that responsibility lies with management. That is, management is responsible for institutional performance by definition.

In government, however, the operative working assumption is altogether different. Successes and failures there cannot be blamed on management, because only tidbits of authority are vested there. Fault must lie elsewhere. Two possibilities present themselves: inadequate rule-making and insufficient political oversight. What is rarely examined is what is most often the real culprit: the authority that public-sector management should have but doesn't.

It is all but a knee-jerk reaction to begin the blaming process by denouncing inadequate rules and regulations. We didn't see something coming, but should have. The remedy is clear: New rules must be written, and quickly, to make up for the lapse. When that doesn't suffice, we turn to the second target of blame, insufficient political oversight. Elected officials must hold bureaucracy to account.

Hence the public sector is replete with both: rules and regulations that address long histories of organizational issues along with a vast array of oversight structures. In a static world, these approaches might serve the purpose. But our rapidly changing one generates a relentless, never-ending need for more rules and more oversight. It is impossible for the most accomplished rule-makers or the most able overseers to keep up with constantly growing demands.

The U.S. House of Representatives consists of 435 members and the U.S. Senate of 100. In contrast, hundreds of federal-government departments and agencies employ nearly 2 million civilians and spend nearly $4 trillion annually. Considering the scale of that which must be overseen and the paucity of overseers and hours available for oversight, elected officials do a creditable job. Even so, elected officials rarely enter the buildings that house the institutions they oversee; representatives of those institutions come to them instead. It's a rare day in Washington when some high-ranking federal official isn't being hauled before a congressional oversight committee.

Nor do the president or the governors of the 50 states or the mayors of cities large and small possess the resources necessary to make oversight effective. These elected executives face far too many problems, and have far too little talent at their disposal, to even pretend to conduct effective oversight.

And it simply is not possible to write rules and regulations to cover what oversight inevitably misses. The institutions of government are far too large and complex for such a simple solution. The fact that it is all but impossible to write a new rule that clarifies more than it complicates is the well-known lament of the government professional.

The interplay between overseers and rule makers and those who operate government is a vast morass. Recipients of rules and oversight accumulate long and ever-growing lists of incoming directions. Constant explanations and clarifications are required. The flow goes the other way too, as government's professionals submit proposals and recommendations to rule-makers and overseers, who also find it impossible to keep up.

The inevitable result is that institutions of government are drowning in directions and rules from the top. It is all but impossible to attend to anything else. Because the kinds of initiatives that happen routinely at the lower and middle levels of private-sector institutions require the attention of the highest levels in government, few such initiatives take place in the public sector. The inevitable result is that government's institutions have become rigid and all but unmanageable, except at the very top. Hardly anyone outside government knows this, but government performs very well indeed at the top. Government's troubles lie elsewhere.

Institutions require continuous re-tooling at all levels. But few institutions of government obtain it. We have created a classic "Catch-22": Government's failings produce more rules and oversight, which increases institutional rigidity, which produces more failings, which produces more rules and oversight, which increases institutional rigidity. ...

There is only one possible way out, and that is to vest sufficient authority and responsibility in management so that the answer to the question "Who is to blame?" becomes: "Management is to blame." Government will never dispense with oversight and rules. But if we want to add accountability to the equation, the only possible way is through management.

Retired city manager of Santa Cruz, Calif.
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