Category Archives: Government

Artificial Intelligence, Discretion, and Bureaucracy

Source: Justin B. Bullock, The American Review of Public Administration, OnlineFirst, Published June 18, 2019
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From the abstract:
This essay highlights the increasing use of artificial intelligence (AI) in governance and society and explores the relationship between AI, discretion, and bureaucracy. AI is an advanced information communication technology tool (ICT) that changes both the nature of human discretion within a bureaucracy and the structure of bureaucracies. To better understand this relationship, AI, discretion, and bureaucracy are explored in some length. It is argued that discretion and decision-making are strongly influenced by intelligence, and that improvements in intelligence, such as AI, can help improve the overall quality of administration. Furthermore, the characteristics, strength, and weaknesses of both human discretion and AI are explored. Once these characteristics are laid out, a further exploration of the role AI may play in bureaucracies and bureaucratic structure is presented, followed by a specific focus on systems-level bureaucracies. In addition, it is argued that task distribution and task characteristics play a large role, along with the organizational and legal context, in whether a task favors human discretion or the use of AI. Complexity and uncertainty are presented as the major defining characteristics for categorizing tasks. Finally, a discussion is provided about the important cautions and concerns of utilizing AI in governance, in particular, with respect to existential risk and administrative evil.

Survey: Only One-Third of Agencies Are Sending NARA Electronic Records

Source: Brandi Vincent, Nextgov, March 29, 2019

Many federal agencies could be at risk of not meeting National Archives and Records Administration’s mandate to manage (and eventually send NARA) all records electronically by December 2019, according to a survey.

An overreliance on manual processes and fallible end-users paired with a lack of manpower and implemented automation are driving that risk according to a survey of 150 government decision-makers released Thursday by AvePoint Public Sector and custom research firm Market Connections.

The survey found that while 93 percent of respondents were “very confident” or “somewhat confident” their agencies are managing records to federal standards, a “vast majority” of agencies are not presently sending all their eligible records to NARA. Only 33 transferred all eligible records to NARA in fiscal 2018. The year prior, only 22 percent of agencies transferred eligible electronic records to the administration. Still, 61 percent of respondents rated their agencies’ progress at meeting the December deadline as “good,” or “excellent.”….

Related:
New Survey Reveals Why Federal Agencies Aren’t Transferring Records to NARA
Source: AvePoint Public Sector, March 28, 2019

…. Why Agencies Aren’t Transferring Records to NARA
The 2019 NARA Readiness Report directly asks respondents their reasons for not transferring records to NARA for disposition. Findings showed:
– Too many records / a lot of work / manpower shortage / difficult to manage—42 percent
– Cost / Budget—16 percent
– Work in progress—11 percent
– Lack of appropriate oversight / mismanaged—7 percent
– Compliance / data concerns—5 percent
– Other responses / Confidential—27 percent

Fees, Fines, and Penalties: Better Reporting of Government-wide Data Would Increase Transparency and Facilitate Oversight

Source: U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), GAO-19-221, March 7, 2019

From the Fast Facts:
Federal agencies collect hundreds of billions of dollars annually in fees, fines, and penalties, such as national park entry fees and penalties for violations of federal telemarketing law.

Government-wide data could help Congress identify trends in collections and significant changes that could be an indication of an agency’s performance. Currently, there is no comprehensive, government-wide report that identifies specific fees, fines, and penalties.

We made 4 recommendations to enhance the Office of Management and Budget’s current reporting on these collections, such as making more specific data publically available.

Related:
Highlights
Recommendations
Podcast

The shutdown: Drowning government in the bathtub

Source: William E. Nelson, The Conversation, February 12, 2019

…. Shuttering the government for the third time since Trump took office remains possible, but is less likely now, given Monday’s progress towards a deal in Congressional talks over securing the border. Meanwhile, bipartisan support, including among prominent Republicans like Sens. Chuck Grassley, Lisa Murkowski, Lamar Alexander and Rob Portman, is rising for bills that would prohibit shutdowns.

The president’s observable objective in this political conflict is getting money from Congress to build the border wall.

As legal scholars who have spent much of our careers analyzing the interaction between government and society, including the economy, we believe that intentionally or not, the shutdown also was consistent with a goal long sought by a subset of the Republican Party – not to be confused with traditional, moderate Republicans – that wants to dismantle the government.

Starve the beast

These advocates of limiting government’s size have a traffic cop theory of the state, featuring a minimalist state focused on safety and security.

Many believe that government is at best superfluous and at worst a drag on a free market. It has long been their aim to cut taxes to “starve the beast.” ….

Are Declines in U.S. Federal Workforce Capabilities Putting Our Government at Risk of Failing?

Source: Molly Jahn, Gregory F. Treverton, David A. Bray, Buddhika Jayamaha, Bill Valdez, Ben Carnes, Liam Hutchison, Will Mulhern, Senior Executives Association, January 2019

Has the U.S. Federal Government reached a point where critical operations might fail in stressful events that are likely to occur? This was this project’s animating question. Based on the data collected in this study, it appears the answer to these critical questions is yes.

A weakening in the capacity of the government’s workforce and its organizational structures is plainly evident, and so is a perceptible loss of collective resilience to detect and respond to adverse events. To test this conclusion, this study considered workforce trends given several dozen potential scenarios, ranging between those that are virtually certain to occur in the next year to other scenarios that are highly plausible in the near term.

The U.S. Executive Branch has hardly grown in sixty years – there were 1.8 million civilian employees in 1960, and 2.1 million in 2017. Yet over the same period the amount of money spent by the federal government has grown fivefold. To be sure, contracts and grants have filled part of the gap, but, still, both the amount and range of work required of the federal workforce has continued to go up, just as the scope and complexity of executive branch functions have also increased. Government contractors, widely used to plug the holes in our government, can only take up so much of the slack. ….

….Six critical themes run through our study:
• All three branches of the U.S. Federal Government have failed to keep up with a rapidly changing world, opening enormous vulnerabilities and attack surfaces.
• Many private sector positions are vastly better remunerated and often more stable relative to public service, particularly at the senior most ranks of the civil service.
• The increasing polarization of Congress is visible in any number of objective measures, resulting in dysfunctional deliberations and an inability to perform legislative functions.
• An increasingly polarized polity, resulting in part from campaign financing changes, have made money more important in our politics.
• An increasing replacement of what was non-partisan Senior Executive roles with political appointees for at least the last half century.
• The ever-present stress of major cyber threats, combined with new hybrid threats including misinformation, disinformation and other concerns, with the potential to disable substantial parts of government and discredit public processes: witness the recent ransomware attack on the City of Atlanta in 2018.

The study’s findings point toward the more extreme plausible explanations for current trends and their future implications. Perhaps U.S. Federal Government civil servants are the canaries in the mines of the Nation, telling us that the air is growing dangerously foul. Perhaps not just the capacity of the U.S. Federal Government to respond to domestic and foreign crises is at risk, but also our civic norms and constitutional order. ….

Federal Workers: Shutdown and Out

Source: Saurav Sarkar, Labor Notes, January 18, 2019

What would you do if management could force you to work without pay, lock you out with no consequences, and fire you for going on strike?

That’s the situation facing 800,000 federal workers—and their unions—during the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.

Forty percent of the government’s civilian workforce besides postal workers are being deprived of money to pay for rent, gas, groceries, and car and student loan payments.

They include 420,000 workers who are being forced to work without pay and 380,000 who are locked out…..

Barriers to Using Government Data: Extended Analysis of the U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking’s Survey of Federal Agencies and Offices

Source: Nick Hart, Kody Carmody, Bipartisan Policy Center, October 2018

Policymakers face many demands from constituents, budgetary processes, and their commitment to providing good services for the American people. This last concern is made easier when policymakers have access to reliable information to guide their decisions. But access to data and the ability to turn those data into evidence to inform decisions can be hampered by legal restrictions on access to sensitive data, constitutional constraints, and the availability of resources.

In 2016, Congress and the president established the U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking and charged it with developing a strategy for addressing these barriers. During the commission’s fact-finding efforts, it launched a survey of agencies and units across the federal government to better understand existing barriers to data access and use. The data collected in the survey then provided initial evidence that the commission considered in making its recommendations.

Extended analysis of the commission survey confirms much of what the commission concluded in its final report, validating identified legal and regulatory barriers to using data. The extended analysis also leads to new findings:
1. Federal offices perceive that their roles in evidence-building activities are in niches and largely do not perceive their data collection as for a broad range of purposes like evaluation that would require better coordination across an agency.
2. Units within federal agencies exhibit wide variation in their capacity for data sharing and linkage. 3. Challenges to using data for evidence building are distributed across virtually every policy domain. Respondents identify federal tax information as especially difficult to access and use.
4. Despite some offices reportedly lacking resources to conduct evidence-building activities, it is still quite common for offices to conduct at least some data sharing and linking. However, agencies still indicate substantial gaps in developing metadata, sharing with third parties, conducting disclosure reviews, and engaging in disclosure avoidance protocols to protect data. Statistical agencies were by far better positioned for this work than other agencies…..

Government Reorganization: Key Questions to Assess Agency Reform Efforts

Source: United States Government Accountability Office, Report to Congressional Requesters, GAO-18-427, June 2018

From the fast facts:
A March 2017 executive order requiring executive branch agency reorganization is intended to improve efficiency and effectiveness. If it works, it could save billions of dollars—but similar reform efforts in the past have not always come to fruition.
Our prior work on government reform indicates that agencies can change if they
– follow an effective process
– allocate sufficient implementation resources
– consider workforce needs during and after the reform

In this report, we provide questions that Congress can ask in its critical oversight role to determine whether agencies are on track for effective change.

American Democracy After Trump’s First Year

Source: Gretchen Helmke, Brendan Nyhan, John Carey and Susan Stokes, Bright Line Watch, Survey — Wave 4, February 8, 2018

In January 2018, as Donald Trump completed his first year as president, Bright Line Watch conducted its fourth expert survey on the state of U.S. democracy. At the same time, we conducted an identical public survey – our second – with a nation­al­ly rep­re­sen­ta­tive sample of Americans. This approach allows us to assess whether experts and/or the public believe the quality of democracy has changed in the U.S. during President Trump’s tenure. We also asked respon­dents to rate the overall quality of democracy in a dozen other countries, including Canada, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela, allowing us to assess how experts and the public believe America stacks up against other countries. Finally, we dis­ag­gre­gate results from our public survey to see how changes in these per­cep­tions vary by approval of Trump.

The overall picture is sobering. Though the public rates American democracy more neg­a­tive­ly than our experts do (as in our previous survey), both experts and the public agree that the per­for­mance of U.S. democracy has declined. This per­cep­tion of decline is mirrored for many specific demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples, though in some cases we observe sig­nif­i­cant diver­gence between Trump approvers and disapprovers.

Related:
Survey finds reasons to worry about U.S. democracy
Source: Sandra Knispel, Futurity, April 19, 2018

A new survey of political science scholars and the general public finds reasons to be concerned about American democracy.