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Column: Why does government sometimes fail?


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As election season approaches, I’ve been pondering a crucial issue about the role of government in our society. It’s that our government often fails.

What’s odd is that while the frequent failures in government’s performance are very much on ordinary people’s minds, politicians don’t talk much about fixing them.

Progress comes slowly, the media’s not especially interested in the tedious story of building competence, and politicians themselves look for home runs, not singles. They want to make grand proposals, not spend their time digging into the nuts and bolts of fixing bureaucracies.

Moreover, as political scientist Paul C. Light has amply demonstrated, government failures happen for a long list of reasons that cannot be fixed easily, painlessly or quickly.

Sometimes problems are rooted in policies that were ill-conceived, too complicated or not well-communicated. Sometimes the policies were fine, but the resources necessary to implement them were inadequate or misused. Politics often gets in the way of good policy, with efforts to undermine programs by making their implementation difficult or by cutting staffs and budgets.

There are organizational and institutional problems, poor oversight, poor leadership — no matter how good a policy, if good people aren’t available to carry it out, it will fail — and government’s alarming difficulty attracting and keeping highly qualified administrators. Often, leaders are bored by the nitty-gritty of management.

Still, these are challenges, not barriers. If our political leaders wanted to focus on improving government management and policy implementation, there’s no shortage of fixes they could make.

All of us want government to fail less often, whatever our political stripe. So here’s my suggestion: As election season approaches, insist that your favored candidate work harder on making government more effective and efficient.

Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.

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