The self-licking ice cream cone of outrage at federal inefficiency


It turns out the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993 and the Bush administration's now-abandoned Program Assessment Rating Tool were good for something. Those attempts at creating performance reform within government--measuring programs according to performance metrics--were fantastically creating performance measures. As a study published by the Brookings Institution notes, they've been less successful at affecting actual performance.

Really, there's no reason to be overly surprised--Washington, D.C., specializes in outcomes like this. The military even has a term for it--a self-licking ice cream cone. It means a system that exists to sustain itself, one that's validated by its own activity.

That GPRA and PART--and more recently, the GPRA Modernization Act as well as open government efforts--were intended as correctives to the inward-looking nature of federal agencies but became another symptom of that culture isn't too surprising, either. They were conceived and executed as top-down measures and in many cases impose a pseudo-scientific, quantitative measuring system so as to be able to compare totally incomparable programs. They demand reams and reams of documents couched in management speak to be constantly churned into the system. And because much of this activity is necessarily divorced from actual operations, much of it is gobbledygook. What's worse is that many agencies hire consultants to do much of this work for them. Why not just rename GRPA the Booz Allen Hamilton Permanent Employment Act for the sake of veracity?

Lest Congress believe that it's time for yet another law--this time it'll really stick--they'd probably best look at a mirror first. The parochialism of appropriations committees and the dry heaves congressmen give out whenever real change is proposed is one of the greatest propagators of government inefficiency on a grand scale. Those members of Congress hyperventilating over conference spending perpetuate a system where--for example--the Federal Aviation Administration is mostly powerless to consolidate air traffic control centers despite a plethora of excessive and aging facilities. And the Defense Department buys tanks it doesn't want. And efforts to spread administrative costs through government-run shared services are hobbled to Great Depression-era strictures about interagency transfers. Etc.

We're in the middle now of a vociferous conversation about the size of government and the need to make it more efficient. I've yet to see any appetite for real change from those shouting the loudest. In fact, congressional outrage may be the biggest self-licking ice cream cone yet. - Dave