Politics & Policy

Our Government Is Not Constructed for Competence

FBI Director Christopher Wray testifies before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on “World Wide Threats” on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
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.

Unless the political branches of government are empowered to hold the permanent class of civil servants accountable for incompetence, the people will ultimately rage in vain.

And that brings us back to where we started. Americans can rage in fury at the FBI or the VA. They can demand that cabinet secretaries be cashiered or FBI directors lose their jobs, but unless the political branches of government are empowered to hold the permanent class of civil servants accountable for incompetence, the people will ultimately rage in vain. Extraordinary leaders may be capable of implementing temporary change, but over time the bureaucracy always reasserts itself and performance reverts to the dreary and unsatisfactory mean.

President Trump is proposing much-needed civil-service reform modeled after a VA Accountability Act, which has already helped the VA rid itself of 1,470 incompetent employees. That’s a start, but until Americans fully understand that all levels of government suffer from the same malady, even better policies may not result in substantially better outcomes — so long as they’re run through the same self-interested bureaucracy.

Unaccountable institutions always put too much trust in the inherent goodness of their employees. And, make no mistake, there are outstanding public servants who do work that matches and exceeds the best in the private sector. But people are people, and as a group people need to be held accountable to perform at their best. As it is, time and again — as in Parkland, Fla. — Americans feed their fears and concerns into the bureaucratic maw, not understanding that the system is in some ways built to fail.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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