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The Dawn of a New Political Narrative?

by Philip K. Howard

Newt Gingrich recently gave a speech at the Heritage Foundation in which he explained why government must be rebuilt, not fixed. The bureaucracy was invented about the same time as the manual typewriter, he explained, and still works in that clunky way. While an ATM machine can reliably distribute money to you and adjust your bank balance instantaneously, it takes the Pentagon 177 days to move a soldier’s health records to the Veterans’ Administration. “Nobody in the current system is allowed to think clearly about the scale of change that would be involved if you use modern technology.”

Government is stuck in paper-based organization. Federal employees’ pensions are processed by hand in a cave in Pennsylvania. Seriously. Permits for new businesses require trudging to a dozen or more different agencies. Matt Yglesias chronicled the mindless procedures required to rent out an apartment in DC. Because of all this clunky bureaucracy, the US now ranks 20th in the world in ease of starting a business.   

Efforts to bring modern technology into government almost always fail, however. One study suggested that only 4 % of federal IT projects were successful. Failure is virtually guaranteed for two reasons—first, the goal is almost always to automate the current system, not to rethink the underlying organization; and second, rigid procurement procedures do not permit the vendors to adapt to unforeseen circumstances. The disaster of the Obamacare roll-out—exacerbated by 55 separate vendors –was virtually preordained by a legislative mandate requiring the technology to sort out multiple separate healthcare entitlements for each person.    

The point here is not just efficient public administration. It is about historic overhaul. It’s hard to find a government program that isn’t broken—the only question is whether it’s broken 25% or 95%. Government is a huge pile of accumulated compromises and good intentions, implemented with all kinds of god-awful bureaucratic forms and requirements. Who reads all those forms? Should environmental review really take a decade? Should special ed really consume over 25% of the total K-12 budget? Do we need all those tax breaks for corporations? Or farm subsidies from the New Deal?

Newt’s speech is also notable for what it doesn’t say. The enemy in his speech is not government—everyone wants veterans to have health care. Indeed, as I argue in my new book (The Rule of Nobody), most government programs—including environmental review and special ed—are vital to our society. But the ineffectiveness of these programs is impossible to ignore.

Perhaps this is the dawn of a new political narrative. The current fault lines don’t get us anywhere, with Tea Party conservatives attacking the very idea of government, and liberals defending the virtuous aims of government without coming to grips with their pervasive semi-failures. 

The new enemy is ossification. Bureaucracy imbeds the status quo in legal concrete. Why doesn’t anything get fixed? Because it’s illegal to act sensibly. Balancing the budget is basically illegal because over half the budget is pre-committed to entitlements that don’t even come up for annual authorization. Rebuilding infrastructure on a timely basis is illegal because of interminable procedures and approvals. That’s why government must be rebuilt to make it work. This is what Jeb Bush is saying on stump—clean out the stables so government can focus on current priorities. Cleaning out decades of accumulated bureaucracy needn’t be a partisan argument. Do liberals really believe in a mindless trudge through endless bureaucracy?

The new aspiration is individual initiative. Liberate humans to roll up their sleeves and get things done. This includes liberating people within government, and rationalizing civil service so they can be held accountable. It shows how far government has degenerated when radical overhaul is required to restore the core assumption of democratic governance: individual responsibility and accountability. As Newt put it: “How do we rethink human activities to maximize the power of the individual and to profoundly replace the current structure?” 

Maybe there’s a crack in the door of our dark, acrid political culture.