A Cascade of Failures: Why Government Fails, and How to Stop It

Source: Paul C. Light, Brooking Institution, Strengthening American Democracy, Number 93 of 94, July 2014

From the summary:
In this research paper, Paul C. Light writes that the “first step in preventing future failures is to find a reasonable set of past failures that might yield lessons for repair.” To meet this goal, Light asks four key questions about past federal government failures: (1) where did government fail, (2) why did government fail, (3) who caused the failures, and (4) what can be done to fix the underlying problems?…

….The cascade of failures described in this paper parallels other trends over the past three decades, including the steady aging of the federal government’s infrastructure and workforce; growing dependence on contractors; ever-thickening hierarchy; dwindling funds, staffing, and collateral capacity, such as information technology and accounting systems; increasing frustration with poorly drafted policy; presidential disengagement; and political posturing. These trends help explain much of the cascade, although it remains to be seen what might have sparked the patterns in the first place. It could be that bureaucracies are inherently vulnerable to failure regardless of funding, hierarchy, dependencies, and public angst toward big organizations of any kind. It could also be that the cascade reflects errors of omission and commission by Congress and the president, and the flood of what Alexander Hamilton called the “deadly adversaries” of government: cabal, intrigue, and corruption. ….