Government a Plague of Incompetence

Monterey County Herald, March 11, 2007
By Leon E. Panetta
There is an old oxymoron that goes “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you!”

That line was always good for a laugh, but it isn’t so funny any more. It is tragic.  There seems to be a shameful plague of incompetence in government that makes average citizens wonder what is going on with their trust and their tax dollars.

Of course, there have always been instances of incompetence in every administration that required congressional or administrative action to correct. While these mistakes were inexcusable, they seemed to be the exception rather than the rule. Today, the incompetence is more prevalent and hurts larger numbers of innocent people.

No one questions that there are many dedicated public servants in government who want to do a good job. But government’s failures to properly respond to disasters like Katrina, Iraq and the recent tragedy at Walter Reed Army Medical Center are not only mind-boggling. They have cost lives.

In Katrina, there was an absolute breakdown of authority and emergency assistance at the federal, state and local levels. Thousands of people were left stranded without aid, food, water, health care or shelter. Every agency of government failed in its responsibility to protect people from the ravages of a terrible natural disaster. Even today, there are continuing horror stories about how government is failing to provide essential relief to the victims of the hurricane.

I was a member of the Iraq Study Group, which received briefings from the highest officials in the Pentagon and the CIA that revealed a series of incredible mistakes of judgment that have contributed to the tragic loss of thousands of lives. In his book “Fiasco,” Thomas E. Ricks describes the flawed plan of war:

“Spooked by its own false conclusions about the threat, the Bush Administration hurried its diplomacy, short circuited its war planning, and assembled an agonizingly incompetent occupation.”

The decision to invade with insufficient forces and intelligence, to disband the Iraqi army and police and to dismiss all of the experienced Iraqi government officials, along with the failure to coordinate $34 billion in wasted reconstruction efforts, will forever remain examples of gross bureaucratic bungling of the worst kind.

And now, the information on the scandal at Walter Reed hospital confirms the unimaginable–that those who have fought bravely for their country in Iraq and were seriously wounded were brought back to a nightmare of delays, red tape, unsanitary conditions and improper care.

How could a nation that owes so much to these soldiers treat them so badly? Why were these intolerable conditions ignored for so long?

As former chief of staff to the president, I witnessed firsthand the dangers of dealing with large bureaucracies. Huge departments and agencies are by their very nature inefficient and undisciplined. Too many people find ways to avoid responsibility. In facing crisis, I found that the best course of action was to assemble a top level team at the White House that had the authority of the president to cut through the red tape and layers of bureaucracy to get the job done. If they failed, they had to answer directly to the president.

If government is simply left to do the job itself, there are a set of realities that will breed the level of incompetence we have recently experienced:

Lack of supervision: Too often there is a weak chain of command that does not encourage strong and decisive supervision and leadership. Good leaders are too often replaced, retired or moved to other positions. There is no stability in the command structure and therefore no steady, consistent supervision of others.

By the numbers: With the lack of steady supervision, workers tend to operate “by the numbers” and forget their responsibility to adjust to the needs of the mission. They lose the one value that is essential to service — compassion for their fellow human beings. The pressure is to push victims through the system quickly even if it means ignoring their special needs.

Trapped by red tape: To ensure compliance with standards established by government regulations and manuals, the system has been overloaded with red tape, countless forms and layers of bureaucratic control. That means to get anything done demands the consent and sign-off of a number of levels of authority. That guarantees prolonged delays. Contracting out vital services, while intended to be cost effective, is too often bogged down by a lack of essential experience, oversight and accountability.

Don’t make waves: An unofficial rule in the bureaucracy says that to “get along, go along.” In other words, even when it is obvious that mistakes are being made, there is a hesitancy to report the failings for fear of retribution or embarrassment. That is true at every level, including advisers to the president. The result is a “don’t make waves” mentality that says survival is more important than country. Incompetence is accepted not because it is right but because it is just another fact of life you tolerate in big organizations.

Lack of coordination: The numerous government agencies have in many ways become their own fiefdoms. What used to be a few cabinet departments that reported directly to the president have become 15 federal departments and numerous agencies spread over a wide area of Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia. Cabinet meetings with the president are rarely for business and are too often used as a photo opportunity. The result is a lack of coordination between agencies and departments and general confusion when they are called on to respond to emergencies.

These are some of the inherent problems in government that go deeper than one disaster or crisis.

The key to solution is to demand tough and disciplined supervision and leadership by those appointed to do the job. The president himself must set the standard and demand accountability on a regular basis, not just after the fact. And Congress must exercise continuing oversight over programs and operations, not just when the scandal breaks in the news. We cannot be satisfied with temporary fixes and recreating the wheel with every new disaster.

In our democracy, we elect leaders not to expand government but to make sure the government we have is doing its job efficiently and effectively for the people. Surely, the people in return for their vote and their tax dollars deserve competent leadership, and not a plague of incompetence.

LEON PANETTA is a former congressman and White House chief of staff who now heads the Leon & Sylvia Panetta Institute for Public Policy at CSU-Monterey Bay. He was a member of the Iraq Study Group. His column runs every other month in Commentary.


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