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Creating High Performance Government: A Once-In-A-Generation Opportunity

Creating High Performance Government: A Once-In-A-Generation Opportunity

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Published by Mark Warner

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Published by: Mark Warner on Jun 21, 2011
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The Campaign for High Performance GovernmentRobert F. Wagner School of Public ServiceNew York UniversityPaul C. Light, Professor and Director
Funded with support from the Truman Foundationand the Robertson Foundation for Government 
 June 21, 2011
The Campaign for High Performance Government – Robert F. Wagner School of Government – New York University
Confidence in the federal government’s ability to respond effectively to national and international,economic and political problems continues to dwindle. Some of these complaints are a clear reaction topolitical ideology, deepening polarization, and the recent budget battles, but they all reflect a core ofreality.American’s remain divided on what the federal government should do in these difficult, uncertain times, butare increasingly convinced that the federal government must work better, and at lower cost. The question iswhat can be done to both design and implement a comprehensive reform agenda that would create thehigh performance government Americans want and so desperately need.This report provides an overview of the accountability, efficiency, and productivity challenges facingCongress and the president as they consider a broad “overhaul” of the federal bureaucracy, and offerspossible reforms that might improve performance as part of a package of comprehensive action, as well asa discussion of one method for bipartisan legislative implementation. The report also provides estimates ofthe potential savings involved in such a package with the caveat that better performance also involvesinvestment in the basic resources needed for improvement.This report is built on the simple premise that the time for small-scale reform has passed. Congress and thepresident have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve government for the long-term. It has beenseventy years since the last comprehensive review of the federal government’s basic structure andoperations. There is simply no time for another blue-ribbon commission of the kind chaired by formerpresident Herbert Hoover during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Moreover, as Appendix A to this reportshows, there are already plenty of good ideas for action circulating through Congress and the executivebranch. The challenge is to push these and other ideas forward soon enough to create a government thatworks better and costs less.
The Campaign for High Performance Government – Robert F. Wagner School of Government – New York University
Many Americans have come to believe the worst about the federal government. Some of these doubts arerooted in partisan conflict and a drumbeat of anti-government rhetoric, but some are rooted in theescalation of government failures. Americans pay close attention to the news of the day—the sluggishjobless recovery, terrorist plots, poorly supported soldiers, poisoned food, vacancies in the top jobs ofgovernment, waste and improper payments to undeserving citizens and corporations—all which seeminglyreinforce the federal government’s persistent inability to assure the highest performance possible. Asexaggerated as some of the criticism may be, there is more than enough evidence of lapses in performanceto fuel the distrust.Political polarization is both a reflection and a cause of the perceived administrative failures. But there isenough evidence imbedded in recent governmental breakdowns, ethical breaches and outright fraud tofeed the distrust. While low rates of trust may temporarily favor a minority party, radical shifts in legislativemajorities over the past few election cycles are further proof that the American people are desperate forchange. In short, this is not a partisan issue—Republicans and Democrats alike have been and will be heldaccountable for government’s poor performance.There is no question that trust has reached a dismal low. Even as they demand deep budget cuts,Americans want more of virtually everything the federal government delivers. At the same time, they havecome to believe that Washington is trying to do too much in these trying times, and are increasinglyfrustrated (52 percent) and even angry (25 percent) with the federal government. Only 21 percent ofAmericans interviewed last year said they were basically content with government, while only 25 percentsaid they trusted the government in Washington just about always or most of the time. Although the angersubsided somewhat in 2011, the frustration remains. For most Americans, the problem is not so much whatgovernment does, but how it works.The past two National Commissions on the Public Service focused on what the first commission called a“profound erosion of public trust” and the “quiet crisis” in government performance. The 1989 Commissionwarned, “such distrust, if continued, may undermine the democratic process” because it “acts as adisincentive to potential recruits who too often associate public life with frustration or breaches of integrity.”Fifteen years later in 2003, the second National Commission on the Public Service concluded that this quietcrisis had become a deafening roar. We see the result in unsuccessful, redundant, wasteful, and counter-productive efforts in government.

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