Howard on Reforming Bureaucracy

Philip K. Howard has a nice piece in The Atlantic about reforming the bureaucracy and returning accountability to government. Howard calls for a revolution to replace the bureaucratic tangle of government with a “radically simpler structure in which public goals are linked to individual responsibility.” We like simplicity at Free the Commons! Simplicity is one of our foundational goals. Here’s Howard:

How government became a deviant subculture is a story of good intentions gone awry. We tried to avoid government abuse by replacing individual responsibility with detailed rules and objective legal proceedings.

What we achieved instead was what philosopher Hannah Arendt called “the rule of Nobody.” Instead of an automated assembly line, government became a bureaucratic jungle, with all the pathologies of a culture without responsibility or accountability: savage politics disconnected from actual accomplishment; hyper-inefficiency; and a universal sense of powerlessness, causing a downward spiral of selfishness and cynicism.

Howard is preaching to the choir here, and I think the four steps he recommends are dead-on. I won’t repeat what he shares with you at the link above, but will add a few points of my own:

(1) His first point is key. I’d like to see civil service jobs evolve toward temporary careers that are transient and project oriented in nature. Too many people grab their government jobs and never leave. 30 years later they retire with great pensions, but little to show for the time they put in. Let’s change this arrangement so that smart, talented individuals can be plucked from the private sector and institutions and employed in short-term, goal-oriented roles in our bureaucracies. Let them work as teams to complete projects and analyze environmental problems before returning to the private sector.

(2) I like Howard’s third point a great deal: regulate by results, not by red tape. Federal policies should be descriptive rather than prescriptive. The government should set standards, thresholds, and goals on issues like air and water quality, and the private sector and local governments should be required to meet these goals if they wish to do things like produce power or operate municipal waste water treatment plants. Government should provide them the flexibility to find the best way to achieve these goals. What we have instead is a government that dictates, in exacting detail and step-by-painful-costly-step, how these goals are to be achieved. This system creates inordinate volumes of red tape, requires large bureaucracies full of technical experts, leads to corruption and graft, and ultimately results in inefficient and ineffective outcomes.

We’ve written before here and here about the nature of bureaucracy. I like Howard’s contributions to the debate. He should be taken seriously, as these are solid, achievable proposals to serious governmental problems. Overcoming bureaucratic culture, ingrained public sector unions, and entrenched special interests will be difficult, but it must be done if we are to restore some semblance of accountability to government.


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