The Corner

Politics & Policy

If You Can’t Fire Government Workers, You Can’t Run Government Like a Business

The latest effort to run government like a business — or, more precisely, to import business principles into government management — is set to launch:

President Trump plans to unveil a new White House office on Monday with sweeping authority to overhaul the federal bureaucracy and fulfill key campaign promises — such as reforming care for veterans and fighting opioid addiction — by harvesting ideas from the business world and, potentially, privatizing some government functions.

The White House Office of American Innovation, to be led by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, will operate as its own nimble power center within the West Wing and will report directly to Trump. Viewed internally as a SWAT team of strategic consultants, the office will be staffed by former business executives and is designed to infuse fresh thinking into Washington, float above the daily political grind and create a lasting legacy for a president still searching for signature achievements.

There are innumerable challenges to treating government like a business. One of the most consequential is the fact that you can’t treat government employees like private sector employees. Aside from the tiny slice of presidential appointees, government workers enjoy extraordinary job security, and many of them take full advantage of their freedom to fail. As USA Today discovered a few years back, in some agencies the workers are more likely to die than get laid off or fired. This means that workers can weather virtually any reform effort by merely keeping their heads down and waiting for the latest fad or fashion to pass.

There is no substitute for meaningful incentives, and right now success or failure is more abstract for public employees than it is for private-sector workers. If Google or Facebook should one day falter, they can’t appropriate money from taxpayers to stay in operation. There’s no act of Congress that mandates and protects their existence. So we’re left with a world where employees largely don’t lose their job for individual incompetence, and Congress itself protects agencies from the effects of collective incompetence. I wish Kushner well as he tries to make government great again, but I fear he’s been given a task that he doesn’t have the tools to complete. 

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