Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Consumer Reports For Government Agencies Are Badly Needed

There are literally hundreds of federal government agencies.  Most Americans have never heard of the vast majority of them, much less know what they do or how many people they employ or how much money they spend.  Only a few receive regular attention, such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, to name two.

Some thinks tanks publish annual reports on agency budgets, personnel, and pages of regulations in the Federal Register.  Some focus on the always politically popular themes of waste, fraud, and abuse.  Others investigate specific outrageous activities of this or that agency.  Some highlight conflict between federal agencies and the congressional committees that oversee them, especially when the president and Congress represent different parties.

Consumer reports on commercial products have been around for decades.  Consumer Reports was widely regarded as the bible for rating manufacturers of similar products or evaluating new products coming to market.  Today potential purchasers can browse numerous web sites to compare features and prices of almost every product for sale anywhere in the world.  Any company selling a defective or shoddy product is likely to be exposed, lose sales, suffer a fall in its stock price, and lose its reputation.  Some firms never recover from bad publicity.

Since the Great Depression, the federal government has steadily intruded on the private affairs of firms and individuals.  Sometimes government intervention is positive, other times negative.  But rarely do bad performance lead to mass layoffs, reduction in the budget and scope of an agency’s activities or shutdown of a government agency.  Reports of inspectors general in agencies have little to no effect on their activities.

What’s missing are comprehensive consumer reports on all government agencies that are widely accessible to the public to supplement annual reports and anecdotes that constitute most reporting—a Wikipedia for agencies (Wikiagency).  The academic political media industrial complex is quick to criticize any firm for the slightest error, but there is no counterpart to the often more damaging misconduct of government agencies.

Your friendly proprietor hopes that someone or organization will pick up this suggestion and start a Wikiagency to expose misconduct and force the hundreds of government agencies, thousands when state and local governments are included, to justify every dollar and employee of their activities.  And, also force Congress to reduce agency budgets, programs and personnel when they misbehave or fail to carry out their proper lawful duties.

1 comment :

Chick said...

Incentives to Improve Public Service Performance

The public sector rarely looks for savings through better management. Legislators focus mainly on new programs or expanding existing ones, accompanied by budgetary gimmickry to cover increased costs. They work for a bigger share of expenditures in their jurisdictions.

Government employees, through their unions, tend to view bigger government as a means to increase jobs and membership. By adding administrative layers to organizational structures, staffing opportunities multiply, and opportunities for promotions and advancements increase. Simply put, there are no market incentives to increase public sector productivity. The public sector is much like a command economy, little different than the one used in the USSR, now reigning in Cuba, currently holding back growth in the European Union, and about to take over Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador.

Can it be changed? Sure. Introduce market forces into the public sector. Simply reward bureaucrats and legislators for budgetary savings. It could work. For bureaucrats:

- Give civil servants, say, half the administrative costs they save as salary bonuses, or additional fringe benefits such as additions to their retirement accounts, or the funding of the college education for their kids.

Productivity would jump and cost savings would roll in like welcome summer rains.

And the savings potential? When I worked for the Social Security Administration (Deputy Assistant Commissioner for Strategic and Manpower Planning) SSA saved an average of 3 percent annually of the Agency's wage bill for 7 years, or about 20 percent overall. Since the annual attrition rate of SSA employees was over 3 percent, the numbers of staff forced into unemployment was zero. It represented a savings of about $1 billion of administrative costs the year I left.

Not bad, for government work.

Efficiency in the use of the existing workforce can produce savings by either reducing staff, or increasing productivity. Staff reductions, however, are the most likely opportunity for savings. The fear that accompanies staff reductions can be muted or eliminated by 1) Matching reductions to normal attrition, 2) Facilitating the transfer of employees to other agencies, 3) Training on-board staff to fill skill vacancies, 4) Opening up opportunities for employees to fill private sector, or state and local jobs, and, 5) Buy outs or early retirement. None of these options expands the roles of the unemployed.

Improvement measures in efficiency and increased productivity are easily obtainable from existing data. For example, the number of people served, or the product produced, can be divided by the number of employees dedicated to the work at hand. Similarly, the costs of operations can be divided either by the number of employees, or the number of units produced, or clients served. Thirdly, processing speed can be used to compare performance between different time periods. Fourthly, error rates can be established to measure wasteful duplicative effort, and quality of operations. Customer satisfaction.can be measured through surveys of clients.

The Social Security Administration used, and may still be using, such measures. Performance of offices were compared and ranked against those offices doing similar work. Regional Offices, for example, were compared, and competition between offices resulted. Further, improvements in performance, became part of executive performance reviews and bonus awards.

Based on the above, real savings in program expenditures resulted. And while a bonus system based on savings was not authorized and could not be implemented, the Commissioner chose to use savings to prepay prospective operating expenditures. The public benefited.


Jaime L. Manzano
Federal Senior Executive and Foreign Service Officer (Retired)
7904 Park Overlook Drive
Bethesda, MD 20817