Federal bureaucracies are insulated from effective accountability and discipline.
Amid all the news reports of red flags raised before the Parkland, Fla., school shooting — of the dozens of police calls to the shooter’s home, his expulsion from school, the widespread belief among students that he was exactly the kind of person who’d go on a killing spree — few things are more haunting than the key passage of the FBI’s admission that it failed. It failed to follow up on a detailed, credible report that the Florida shooter was armed and dangerous:
On January 5, 2018, a person close to Nikolas Cruz contacted the FBI’s Public Access Line (PAL) tipline to report concerns about him. The caller provided information about Cruz’s gun ownership, desire to kill people, erratic behavior, and disturbing social media posts, as well as the potential of him conducting a school shooting.
There it is. A perfect representation of see something, say something. It was a tip served up on a silver platter. It was from a credible source. It was specific. It was supported by evidence.
And the FBI did nothing.
This wasn’t the first time that the government failed to properly heed warning signs. It won’t be the last. Some of the most traumatic events in recent American history could have been avoided through simple competence. Mistakes foiled the background-check system before the Virginia Tech massacre, the Charleston church shooting, and the Sutherland Springs massacre. The Orlando nightclub killer had been on the FBI’s radar screen well before he committed the second-worst mass shooting in American history. The FBI even intercepted the Fort Hood shooters’ communications with al-Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and took no meaningful action.
Mass shootings often highlight the problem of governmental incompetence, but even the most cursory review of government bureaucracies reveals that it’s not limited to law enforcement. In fact, law enforcement may ultimately represent one of the least incompetent branches of government service. Compared with the VA, the FBI looks like a model of efficiency and excellence.
It’s time for Americans to face facts. With few exceptions, our governments — local, state, and federal — are not constructed to be competent. The permanent class of civil servants —the career officials who work for multiple presidents, governors, mayors, or town officials — work within bureaucracies that are designed from the ground up to be insulated from effective accountability and discipline. They enjoy a job security that private-sector workers can’t begin to imagine.
A few years ago, a USA Today report rocketed around the Internet for a few days and then faded into obscurity. Too bad. It should have triggered an extended national conversation and extensive legal reform. The headline was sensational, but true: “Some federal workers more likely to die than lose jobs.” It traced the number of employees laid off or fired in multiple federal agencies and found that turnover was microscopic to nonexistent.
Even assuming that a federal worker is a better class of employee than your average private-sector employee (a debatable presumption), the numbers were amazing. The Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission collectively employed 3,000 people. They fired no one. NASA employed almost 19,000 and fired 13. The EPA employed almost 19,000 and fired 19.
In other words, incompetence is baked into the bureaucratic cake.
How does this happen? How did a government job become the most secure job in the United States? After all, aren’t government functions among the most vital, where failure has the most consequence? Yet perversely, failure is punished the least in the public sector.
As is so often the case, a bad reality was spawned from a good thought. A growing nation needed a better class of civil servants than resulted from the so-called spoils system, when political victory could mean a wholesale replacement of civil servants and the persistence of so-called machine politics. The idea, which gained currency in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was simple and appealing. Replace a spoils system with a merit system — where the political appointees set policy, and a competent class of public servants execute that policy, judged on their merit, not their ideology.
Reformers ultimately proved to be very good at insulating civil servants from political accountability and much less effective at prioritizing merit. As James Richardson wrote in National Review in 2013 in response to yet another hiring scandal in yet another federal agency, “What began as a safeguard against capricious, politically motivated firing has devolved into a system whose foremost concern is protecting a bureaucracy at the expense of taxpayers it serves.”
Yes indeed, and the problem is even worse in many state and local governments, especially where robust public-employee unions stand guard. In some jurisdictions firing a single incompetent public-school teacher is a Herculean task.
I have been in the position to hire and fire people and, for me anyway, firing someone has never been pleasant. In fact, all the people I have had to fire have been people I truly liked, but it was my responsibility to put the company’s needs ahead of my own feelings.
So, it appears in the federal bureaucracy no one is held accountable, including the administrators. In my job, when I ran out of hours to do a job (money) I had to explain why and was held accountable if there was not some external reason for failure to make budget. If the quality of the work done was not to the company’s standard, it was my responsibility; either it was my own fault or I had to hold someone accountable. It’s pretty simple and easy to understand. Yet, such basic logic evades the government.
What happens when they run out of money? They get more. What happens when their employees are unproductive? They get more. What happens when the quality of the output is substandard? They get more money and employees.
Cultures grow within the workplace and the culture that has grown in government is that failure is not punished, laziness is the pace. I know there are people in public service dedicated to their jobs, but that is their choice, not the requirement and the longer the culture of failure is allowed to persist, the more pervasive it becomes. Today, we have people struggling to get a government job because it is free sailing from there on.
The the self-diagnosed solution is bigger government… which breeds MORE inefficiency.
My favorite example of gov’t employee incompetence comes from the VA.
So many tons of medical records have not been filed properly that they threaten the integrity of the file rooms’ floors!
Often doctors ask for a patient’s records only to be stalled….forever.
One doctor needed a patient’s records and couldn’t get them thru proper channels.
So, he went into the records room and dug until he found them!
he was then able to treat the sick veteran successfully.
The file clerks were not pleased.
They filed complaints against the doctor and won.
He has a permanent bad review on his record for saving a man’s life!
@Nanny G: And how many of these may be records of patients with serious mental or disciplinary issues that might need to be in the data base? Yet, the left remains satisfied with incompetence as long as they can throw more of our money at it.