Government Failure: More from Paul Light

NYU’s Paul Light provides thoughts on government failure in the Wall Street Journal today.

Congress returned to its investigation of the General Motors faulty ignition switch Tuesday with a blistering Senate hearing on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s failure to act. As the House Energy and Commerce Committee concluded on the same day, the agency had more than enough information in 2007 to prevent further tragedy, but gave GM a pass.

Lest anyone think that the neglect was an aberration in an otherwise invulnerable government, the cascade of highly visible failures has been accelerating since the mid-1980s. According to my list of management failures that made the national news over the past quarter-century, the federal government produced an average of 1.5 failures per year from 1986 to 1993, two per year from 1993 to 2001, and three per year from 2001 to today.

Light’s views build on his recent study on the subject, which I discussed in this blog. Light says some nice things about the bureaucracy, which I have not quoted here. But he has documented a long list of failures:

With more aggressive oversight and stronger policy, for example, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration could have prevented the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, last year that killed 13 people. With more effective monitoring of at least two of its watchlists, the intelligence community could have warned the Boston police that there was a potential terrorist duo in the city before the Boston Marathon bombing. With a bit of late-night reading of its own internal reports, the Department of Veterans Affairs could have discovered the VA’s wait-list scandal well before it hit the news. And so it goes, from the flu-vaccine shortages, to the Columbia shuttle disaster, the financial meltdown, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the disaster.

I think a key reason why the federal government is failing more than ever is because it is larger than ever. Light suggests other reasons for the government’s poor performance. Either way, this is an important discussion to have, and I am glad Light is out front documenting the failures and asking some fundamental questions.