Thoughts on the Design of Government from December, 1980

Beyond the Beltway no one cares how the Federal government is organized. They want it to work. Both President Carter and President Nixon made reorganizing the government high priority, high visibility objectives. Both efforts failed. Moving intact programs from place to place is a waste of time. Beyond the Beltway no one’s life is touched by the Postal Service or the Department if Agriculture. You see the postman or the county agent. It’s the program, not the department that matters, and program by program the Federal government must be rethought and redesigned.

For example, no one wants more injuries among America’s workers, but a lot of people dislike OSHA immensely. If we can agree on the need to make workplaces safer, the question becomes can we design an effective program that is less costly and less interventionist than OSHA? One candidate would be a national Workmans Compensation program with teeth: if payments to workers were really equal to the damage done, firms would find ways to protect their workers. Their insurance companies would see to that. Under such a program, the money changing hands would go to injured workers rather than to today’s army of clerks, both within and opposing OSHA. Armies of clerks, whether public or private, contribute nothing to the balance of payments and even less to national productivity.

Countercyclical public works programs, intended to cushion recession, contribute instead to the next boom. The economy is on the upswing again by the time (a) the Congress notes a downturn and passes a bill, (b) the Economic Development Administration in Commerce passes out the money, (c) state and local governments pass it out again, and (c) the contractors do the work. The Pharaohs invented countercyclical public works, i.e., the Pyramids, thousands of years ago. Why can’t we come up with a program design that works?

The Law Enforcement Assistance Administration has not reduced crime in America. Soon we won’t have LEAA, but we will still have crime. What should we do next?
Problems such as unsafe workplaces, unemployment during recessions, and crime cannot be solved by reorganizing. We need to find new and better program designs. The search for solutions must be broad and thorough, in states and localities as well as abroad, in the past as well as the present, and across functional and disciplinary boundaries. Departmental staff, congressional staff, and lobbyists too often are bound to the program designs and commitments of the past.

No one now looks regularly at our existing Federal programs to see if they can be improved, if less costly or less interventionist designs might accomplish the same goals as well or better, or if indeed the programs are needed at all. New programs do not receive the scrutiny they deserve.

Most people agree on the goals which government has set out to meet, although their priorities may differ. Through an across the board review of the means we have chosen to reach those goals, we can redesign government programs to be both cheaper and more effective. But the job must begin with the program, not the agency and never the department.

To quote William Blake:
“He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars;
General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer,
For Art and Science cannot exist but in minutely organized Particulars
And not in generalizing Demonstrations of the Rational Power.”

The time is now.

Robert A. Knisely
December 1980

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