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Government Needs to Find Balance in Oversight

February 2009
By Christopher J. Dorobek

 
Being agile and innovative will require moving beyond blame.

It has become a truism that the federal government is awash with waste, fraud and abuse. Over the years, that widely held belief has spurred the creation of an entire oversight industry. This includes the inspectors general, the so-called good-government groups, lawmakers on Capitol Hill and, of course, the news media.

A thriving industry has been built around finding and publicizing every mistake that any agency makes. For example, on Capitol Hill when the Democrats took the reins two years ago, one of the first actions Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) took was to rename the House Government Reform Committee to the House Oversight Committee. The Government Accountability Office (GAO), as it is now known, was once called the General Accounting Office.

The theory is that not enough accountability has existed in government; and if you step up the accountability, then people will be more likely to demonstrate results and thus avoid waste, fraud and abuse. This Machiavellian theory has some people believing that the mission of government is accountability.

The real questions are: What is the goal? What are we trying to accomplish? Successful organizations do not focus on the quixotic and fruitless task of eliminating waste. In the end, we all know that particular task is truly impossible, particularly in a government that spends billions of dollars each year. In fact, the goal is not even ensuring that every rule is followed. We do know that there are programs and systems that follow every rule, dot every “i” and cross every “t,” and yet they fail miserably.

Nobody is suggesting there should be no oversight—this is a critical point. And, even more important, no one is suggesting that people who conduct illegal activities should not be brought to justice. This also is not a partisan issue. Lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle have used waste, fraud and abuse as a mantra to bludgeon good public servants.

But I started out with a truism, and one good truism deserves another: everything in moderation. The challenge we now face is to determine the proper oversight balance.

The fact is that people are going to make mistakes. There is going to be waste—even fraud and abuse. The real goal is to enable agencies to accomplish their missions; and beyond that, the taxpayers must receive good value for their tax dollars.

The ultimate goal is best value. The question is how to obtain that best value.

I would argue that the best way to obtain value is through competition. That competition, in a healthy market, would enable the overseers to focus on the cases of broken laws and let common cases of waste evaporate through a competitive marketplace. After all, organizations that are not providing good value will fall under their own weight. The issue then becomes how the government creates a more robust marketplace.

But there is a cost to the hyper-oversight: innovation. As people are second-guessed or figuratively flogged by the public, they tend to become demoralized and avoid doing anything that might garner the spotlight—or wrath. Rather than encouraging innovation and finding new ways of doing things, agencies instead turn to the safe, tried-and-true means of conducting business.

Again, nobody is suggesting that oversight should go away. Good managers acknowledge that oversight can be very helpful in identifying issues. And, there are solutions to its drawbacks.

A simple solution is the acknowledgment that these are difficult issues and that mistakes are not necessarily waste, fraud or abuse. People have to make decisions at certain times based on certain data. Most people simply are trying to do the best job they can. The public must recognize that mistakes can and will happen. Yet another truism is that we tend to learn more from our mistakes than we do from our successes.

Greater transparency also is needed throughout the process. Currently, not enough data or decisions are fully shared. Better decision making is a direct result of better data sharing, so  technologies and capabilities enabling this sharing should be made more widely available. Greater transparency is unlikely to happen without across-the-board acknowledgement that mistakes can, will—and even should—be made. People are unlikely to share their mistakes in the current framework, where those revelations can result in public recriminations.

Finally, rather than launching some impossible mission to eliminate all waste, the wiser path to take would be to figure out ways to minimize that waste by building a healthy, competitive government market where many different organizations compete for work. The main focus should be on the government’s main goal: ensuring that agencies are receiving good value. In general, the GAO deserves praise for the way its auditors conduct oversight. That organization serves as a model for how oversight can help agencies improve.

The transition to a new administration signifies undeniable changes. Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill now have a Democratic president, and that means that the tenor of congressional oversight undoubtedly will change. We can hope that this will be an opportunity to demonstrate the positive attributes of good oversight as opposed to the very costly oversight that has occurred in recent years.

Christopher J. Dorobek is the co-anchor of The Daily Debrief with Chris Dorobek and Amy Morris on Washington, D.C.’s Federal News Radio 1500 AM.