Restoring accountability to the federal government

Joanne Butler Contributor
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The General Services Administration’s piñata of wasteful spending has been a gift to House and Senate members looking to burnish their oversight credentials. But unless there’s a fundamental change in the underlying management culture at the GSA and other government agencies, we can expect taxpayer dollars to continue to disappear.

One take-away from the GSA story is that it’s not enough to rely on an agency’s inspector general and/or the Government Accountability Office to halt wasteful practices. That outrageous $800,000-plus conference in Las Vegas happened two years ago. The resignations it prompted didn’t take place until earlier this month.

Not only is there a time-lag problem, there’s also a consequences problem. Note that the GSA staffers who got fired were political appointees, not career senior managers. It’s practically impossible to fire career senior managers. Could the White House get them to “resign” like the political appointees did? I suppose it could, but as senior managers are usually longtime federal employees, resignation means retirement at a six-figure salary for life. Some punishment!

Remember the outrage back in 2010 over the revelations that graves at Arlington National Cemetery had been mislabeled, human ashes that were supposed to be buried there had instead been dumped in landfills and millions of dollars had been wasted on cemetery-wide computer systems that never materialized? The civil servant responsible for mismanaging Arlington National Cemetery for two decades wasn’t even fired. Being a career senior civil servant, he instead received a letter of reprimand — which was removed from his personnel file when he retired a few days later, on full benefits! And, like the civil servant at the heart of the GSA mess, the Arlington chief was scheduled to receive a performance award until the scandal broke.

The bottom line: when accountability becomes a gotcha game — where the goal is to stay one step ahead of the inspector general — we, the taxpayers, are the losers.

Thus, it’s not enough to “outsource” accountability to inspectors general or the GAO. Firing political appointees may look good, but it’s not a solution either, as accountability must extend beyond the front office suite. When the senior managers who report to those fired appointees get a mere slap on the wrist for serious violations of the public trust, something is wrong.

We need to replace the current gotcha game mentality that exists at places such as GSA with a culture of restraint. But it takes more than several angry hearings or ugly media reports (forgotten after a few news cycles) to produce a lasting change in the bureaucratic mindset.

Political appointees could be cultural change agents in their departments, but right now they’re not. The reality is that many appointees would rather work on policy issues than deal with messy management stuff. That’s understandable, as their White House masters expect them to carry out the administration’s agenda. The actual running of the agency is left to the career civil servants, which has been the status quo in both Republican and Democratic administrations. But the Vegas conference scandal demonstrates that the status quo is not good enough, especially for agencies like the GSA that have a long history of integrity failures.

Tired old status quo “solutions,” such as presidential commissions, czars, task forces and the like, aren’t good enough either. What’s needed is a president (and a White House) truly committed to bringing best management practices to the government and implementing stronger accountability measures where needed.

Mitt Romney, are you listening?

Joanne Butler is a senior economics fellow at The Caesar Rodney Institute of Delaware. You can email her at joanne-butler@comcast.net.