The Ripon Forum

Making Government Work

By on October 28, 2014

To meet the challenges and opportunities of the 21st Century.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell any of you that the world has changed significantly in the past 20 years. But the truth is, we’re going to see even greater changes in the next 20 or 30 years. To avoid irrelevancy, businesses, nonprofit entities, and federal agencies will all need to adapt to this accelerating pace of change. Stated differently, we can’t just be concerned with today, we need to focus on the future.

To capitalize on our opportunities and minimize related risks, all organizations must be mindful of the big picture and the long view. Organizations that endure tend to periodically rethink their missions and operations. World-class organizations understand that innovation requires change. One must change in order to continuously improve. The simple truth is an organization that stands still today is going to get passed by and, ultimately, it may not survive.

It’s useful to remember at the end of the 19th century, the original Dow Jones Industrial Average consisted of 12 stocks. These were all powerful companies, the leaders in their fields. Names like National Lead, U.S. Rubber, and Tennessee Coal and Iron were the Microsofts and Wal-Marts of their day. It’s sobering to realize only one of the original 12 Dow Jones companies survives today, and that’s GE. The rest couldn’t adapt to changing conditions and either merged with competitors or went out of business.

At the start of the 21st century, our country faces a range of sustainability challenges: fiscal, health care, energy, the environment, Iraq, and immigration, to name a few. These challenges are complex and of critical importance.

Unfortunately, our government’s track record in adapting to new conditions and meeting new challenges isn’t good. Much of the federal government remains overly bureaucratic, myopic, and narrowly focused, clinging to outmoded organizational structures and strategies. Many agencies have been slow to adopt best practices. While a few agencies have begun to rethink their missions and operations, many federal policies, programs, processes, and procedures are hopelessly out of date. Furthermore, all too often, it takes an immediate crisis for government to act.

Efficient and effective government matters. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita brought that point home in a painful way. The damage these storms inflicted on the Gulf Coast put all levels of government to the test. While a few agencies, like the Coast Guard, did a great job, many agencies, particularly the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), fell far short of expectations.

Public confidence in the ability of government to meet basic needs was severely shaken — and understandably so. If our government can’t handle known threats like natural disasters, it’s only fair to wonder what other public services may be at risk.

Transforming government and aligning it with modern needs is even more urgent because of our nation’s large and growing fiscal imbalance. Simply stated, America is on a path toward an explosion of debt. And that indebtedness threatens our country’s, our children’s, and our grandchildren’s futures. With the looming retirement of the baby boomers, spiraling health care costs, plummeting savings rates, and increasing reliance on foreign lenders, we face unprecedented fiscal risks.

Long-range simulations from my agency are chilling. If we continue as we have, policy makers will eventually have to raise taxes dramatically and/or slash government services the American people depend on and take for granted. Just pick a program —student loans, the interstate highway system, national parks, federal law enforcement, and even our armed forces.

Lately, I’ve been speaking out publicly about our nation’s worsening financial condition. Beginning in 2005, I started going on the road with a bipartisan group that includes representatives from the Concord Coalition, the Brookings Institution, and the Heritage Foundation. We call ourselves the “Fiscal Wake-Up Tour.”

So far, we’ve held town hall meetings at public venues in 20 states across the country. At every stop, we’ve made it a point to lay out the facts in a professional, nonpartisan, and non-ideological manner. We’ve also been raising ethical and moral concerns, particularly when it comes to shifting huge debt burdens onto future generations of Americans.

I’m now going to discuss some of the other major challenges facing our nation. Some of them have been around for a while. Others are emerging problems. At the top of that list — demographics. To put it simply: our population is aging. Despite increased immigration, growth in the U.S. workforce is expected to slow dramatically during the next 50 years. Like most industrialized nations, the United States will have fewer full-time workers paying taxes and contributing to federal social insurance programs. At the same time, growing numbers of retirees will be claiming their Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits.

Many of these retirees will live far longer than their parents and grandparents. Today, there about 55,000 Americans who are 100 years old or older. By 2050, as many as a million Americans may have reached this milestone. In a nutshell, the retirement of the baby boomers, and I’m one of them, is going to put unprecedented demands on both our public and private pension and our health care systems.

The problem is that in the coming decades, there simply aren’t going to be enough full-time workers to promote strong economic growth or to sustain existing entitlement programs. I should point out while Social Security has a problem, our Medicare and health care challenges are many times worse.

At the same time, American companies are cutting back the retirement benefits they’re offering to workers. To live well during your “golden years,” all of you are going to have to plan better, save more, invest more wisely, and resist the temptation to spend those funds before you retire.

Beyond demographics, the United States confronts a range of other challenges. Globalization is at the top of that list. Markets, technologies, and businesses in various countries and in various parts of the world are increasingly linked, and communication across continents and oceans is now instantaneous. This new reality was made clear by the recent drop in the Chinese stock market, which had immediate ripple effects on financial markets from Tokyo to London to New York.

Clearly, U.S. consumers have reaped many benefits from globalization. From clothing to computers, you and I can buy a range of foreign-made goods that are cheaper than ever. But there’s a catch. In many cases, lower prices have been accompanied by losses in U.S. jobs.

Globalization is also having an impact in areas like the environment and public health. The truth is that air and water pollution don’t stop at the border. And with today’s international air travel, infectious diseases can spread from one continent to another literally overnight.

With the end of the Cold War, we face new security threats, including transnational terrorist networks and rogue nations armed with weapons of mass destruction. September 11 brought this reality home in a painful way. Stronger multinational partnerships will be essential to counter these diverse and diffuse threats.

Other challenges come from technology. In the past 100 years, but especially the last 25 years, spectacular advances in technology have transformed everything from how we do business to how we communicate, to how we treat and cure diseases. Our society has moved from the industrial age to the knowledge age, where specialized knowledge and skills are two keys to success. Unfortunately, the United States — which gave the world Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, and Bill Gates — now lags behind many other developed nations on high school math and science test scores.

In many respects, our quality of life has never been better. We’re living longer, we’re better educated, and we’re more likely to own our own homes. But as many of you already know from your own families, we also face a range of quality-of-life concerns. These include poor public schools, gridlocked city streets, inadequate health care coverage, and the stresses of caring for aging parents and possibly our own children at the same time.

Our very prosperity is also placing greater demands on our physical infrastructure. Billions of dollars will be needed to modernize everything from highways and airports to water and sewage systems. The demands for such new investment will increasingly compete with other national priorities.

At both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue and on both sides of the political aisle, we need leaders who will face these facts, speak the truth, work together, and make tough choices. We also need leadership from our state capitols and city halls, from businesses, colleges and universities, charities, think tanks, the military, and the media. So far, there have been too few calls for fundamental change and shared sacrifice.

A Way Forward

Obviously, a return to fiscal discipline is essential. We need to impose meaningful budget controls on both the tax and the spending sides of the ledger. Members of Congress also need more explicit information on the long-term costs of spending and tax bills — before they vote on them. For example, the Medicare prescription drug bill came with an $8 trillion price tag. But that fact wasn’t disclosed until after the bill had been passed and signed into law.

But if our government is to successfully address the range of challenges I mentioned earlier, government transformation is also essential. Every federal agency and every federal program is going to have to rethink its missions and operations.

The problem is that much of government today is on autopilot, based on social conditions and spending priorities that date back decades. I’m talking about when Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and John Kennedy were in the White House. The fact is, the Cold War is over, the baby boomers are about to retire, and globalization is affecting everything from foreign policy to international trade to public health.

Unfortunately, once federal programs or agencies are created, the tendency is to fund them in perpetuity. As President Ronald Reagan once quipped, a government program is “the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth.” This is a key reason our government has grown so large and so expensive.

American families regularly clean out their closets and attics. Surplus items are either sold at yard sales or given to charity. Unfortunately, when it comes to federal programs and policies, our government has never undertaken an equivalent spring cleaning.

We need nothing less than a top-to-bottom review of federal programs, policies, and operations. Congress and the President need to decide which of these activities remain priorities, which should be overhauled, and which have simply outlived their usefulness.

Entitlement reform is especially urgent. Unless we reform Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, these programs will eventually crowd out all other federal spending. Otherwise, by 2040 our government could be doing little more than sending out Social Security checks and paying interest on our massive national debt.

GAO has been doing its best to bring attention to the problem. To get policy makers thinking, we published an unprecedented report that asks more than 200 probing questions about mandatory and discretionary spending, federal regulations, tax policy, and agency operations. The report is called “21st Century Challenges: Reexamining the Base of the Federal Government,” and is available free on GAO’s Web site at www.gao.gov.

Last November, I sent a letter to congressional leaders suggesting 36 areas for closer oversight. We also recently updated GAO’s list of government areas at high risk of waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement.

Our hope is that policy makers and the public will think more strategically about where we are, where we’re headed, and what we need to do to get on a more prudent and sustainable path. Fortunately, concern seems to be growing. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have started asking some pointed questions about where we are and where we’re headed. Even the Administration now acknowledges that deficits matter. In recent statements, the President has pledged not just to balance the budget but also to start tackling our large and growing entitlement promises.

The American people need to become more informed and involved when it comes to the problems facing our country. They also need to become more vocal in demanding change. Younger Americans like you need to speak up because you and your children will ultimately pay the price and bear the burden if today’s leaders fail to act.

The good news is younger Americans turned out in large numbers for November’s midterm election. From Iraq to immigration, from ethical lapses to fiscal irresponsibility, the public’s dissatisfaction with the status quo was abundantly clear. But looking toward 2008, it’s essential that the public and the press hold candidates of both parties accountable for their position on our large and growing fiscal challenge.

Transforming government won’t happen overnight. Success depends on sustained leadership that transcends the efforts of a single person or a single administration. Public officials will also need to partner with other federal agencies, businesses, universities, and nonprofit groups, both domestically and internationally. The bottom line: we can succeed with enlightened and sustained leadership. And unlike with global warming, we can solve our fiscal challenge on our own!

A Call to Public Service

Government transformation isn’t possible without a first-rate federal workforce. In my view, whatever your career, everyone should consider giving at least a couple of years to public service.

Public service can take several forms: military or civilian government service, faith-based or other charitable organizations, or in community and other public interest groups. Lots of jobs in various sectors, from nursing to teaching to social work, also provide wonderful opportunities to serve others.

One person clearly can make a difference in today’s world. My favorite 20th century president, Theodore Roosevelt, is proof of that. TR, as he’s often called, was someone with character, conscience, and conviction.

As our 26th and youngest president, he was an optimist who firmly believed in the potential of government to improve the life of every citizen. As a trustbuster, TR took on some of the nation’s more powerful and ethically challenged corporate interests. And he won. As an environmentalist, TR left us with a legacy of great national parks like Yosemite. As an internationalist, he led peace talks to end the Russo-Japanese War. In fact, TR is the only American to have won both the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Nobel Peace Prize.

TR firmly believed that it was every American’s responsibility to be active in our civic life, and so do I. Democracy is hard work but it’s work worth doing. How America looks in the future is largely up to us. “We the people” are ultimately responsible for what does or does not happen in Washington.

Other countries with similar challenges have already acted. The two best examples are Australia and New Zealand. Like the United States, they have aging populations. Unlike the United States, these two countries have stepped up to the plate and dealt with some of their serious long-term challenges. Among other steps, they’ve reformed their overburdened public pension and health care systems. The efforts by policy makers in Australia and New Zealand show it’s politically possible to make difficult decisions that require short-term pain in the interest of long-term gain.

What’s needed now is leadership — the kind that leads to meaningful and lasting change —has to be bipartisan and broad-based. Leadership can’t just come from Capitol Hill or the White House. Leadership also needs to come from Main Street.

It’s time for the three most powerful words in our Constitution — “We the people” — to come alive. The American people are going to have to become better informed and involved as we head toward the 2008 elections. And the next President, whoever he or she may be, and whichever party he or she represents, should be prepared to use the bully pulpit of the Oval Office to push needed reforms. If these things happen, we have a real chance to turn things around and better position ourselves for the future.

By facing the facts and making sound policy choices, I’m confident we can fulfill our stewardship responsibilities to your generation and to future generation of Americans. As TR said, “fighting for the right [cause] is the noblest sport the world affords.” I would encourage each of you to pick your cause, and do your best to make a real and lasting difference.

–###–

David Walker is the Comptroller General of the United States and head of the Government Accountability Office. This article is drawn from a speech he delivered at the New School in New York City on April 25, 2007. The complete text is available at www.GAO.gov

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Subscribe

If you enjoyed this article, subscribe now to receive more just like it.

Comments are closed.

Top