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New Brookings Paper Analyzes Government Failure

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The federal government is getting rocked by an accelerating “cascade of failures” that will be very difficult to curtail without bold reforms, according to a new research paper from the Brookings Institution. The paper and accompanying interactive charts analyze 41 instances of what are termed “visible government failures” occurring from 2001 to 2014—from the September 11 terrorist attacks to the VA hospital patient care scandal.

Brookings senior fellow and New York University professor Paul Light found that the number of government failures has increased over time. He found the government had 23 failures from 1986 to 2000 (1.6 per year), compared to 41 since 2001 (3 per year). There were four failures during Ronald Reagan’s final two-and-a-half years (1.6 per year), five during George H. W. Bush’s four years (1.2 per year), 14 during Bill Clinton’s eight years (1.8 per year), 25 during George W. Bush’s eight years (3.1 per year), and 16 during Barack Obama’s first five-and-a-half years (2.9 per year). The failure rate noticeably differs by presidential term, too—1.8 per year for the first terms of Bush I, Bush II, Clinton, and Obama, compared to 2.4 per year for the second terms of Reagan, Clinton, Bush II, and Obama.

The quickening pace of failures parallels the government’s growing dependence on contractors. Not surprisingly, Light found that “contracting, outsourcing, and the failure to oversee performance” was a contributing factor in 15 of the 41 failures, including the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, the September 2007 killing of Iraqi civilians in Nisour Square, the disastrous launch of the Healthcare.gov website, the leak of classified information by Edward Snowden, and the Navy Yard shooting.

“Given the amount of work to be done to prevent future failures, government will certainly continue to fail, but perhaps something can be done now to slow the pileup,” according to Light. One of his recommended reforms is reducing the “bloat” in contracting. As one of the foremost experts on the government workforce, Light speaks from many years of experience on this particular issue. He has long warned about the explosive growth of the so-called “shadow government” of federal contractor employees. He recently estimated the number of contractor employees to be between 6.5 million and 7.5 million, compared to roughly 2 million federal employees. These numbers are consistent with his findings in a 2006 study.

The Project On Government Oversight has made many contracting reform recommendations over the years in order to lower costs and reduce the incidence of fraud and abuse. Checking the growth of contracting while beefing up oversight would accomplish these goals, in addition to slowing the cascade of government failures.

By: Neil Gordon
Investigator, POGO

Neil Gordon, Investigator Neil Gordon is an investigator for the Project On Government Oversight. Neil investigates and maintains POGO's Federal Contractor Misconduct Database.

Topics: Contract Oversight

Related Content: Contractor Accountability, Federal Contractor Misconduct, Government Privatization

Authors: Neil Gordon

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