In their July study titled What Americans Want, the Center for American Progress offer a package of reforms – they call it “Doing What Works” – to make the federal government more efficient, accountable, modern, and transparent.

Most Americans support the reforms, including 60% of Tea Party Republicans. Is that promising, or problematic? (More)

Morning Feature: What Americans Want, Part II – Doing What Works?

This week Morning Feature considers a July report by the Center for American Progress titled What Americans Want. Yesterday we looked at Americans’ confidence in government to solve problems. Today we examine “Doing What Works,” CAP’s strategies for reform. Tomorrow we discuss how to share these ideas with Fred, our archetypal median voter.

You have to admit: it’s a catchy title. Who wouldn’t support “Doing What Works?” Well, not quite everyone. But 70% of progressives-liberals support the proposed reforms, as do 56% of conservatives-libertarians. Have CAP’s analysts found the Goldilocks Zone, or is this a package with something to please – and displease – everyone? Their ideas fall into four broad categories:

Improve efficiency and reduce waste.

Among CAP’s most popular reforms are those to improve efficiency and reduce waste, with 65% of Americans rating them 8 or higher on a scale of 10. Their specific strategies are:

  • Reform federal budgeting, with spending decisions based on objective evidence of what does and doesn’t work.
  • Consolidate federal programs where there is significant overlap.
  • Reform contracting, so officials and quickly and accurately determine the best contractor.
  • Evaluate tax breaks and credits, to determine which are most cost-effective.

CAP created a demographic they call Persuadable Skeptics, those with “just a little” or “no” confidence in government who responded positively to the “Doing What Works” proposals. Among Persuadable Skeptics, an average 72.5% believed these would be highly effective, as compared to 61% of Americans overall.

Measuring performance.

Also popular were reforms to measure the effectiveness of government programs, which 68% of Americans believed would be highly effective. The specific reforms are:

  • Require clear goals for every federal agency that are measured by real-world results.
  • Measure and compare state actions in health care, education, and energy to identify which approaches work.
  • Use pilot programs to “try before you buy” before investing heavily in new government programs.
  • Base future policy decisions on measurable results of existing programs.

An average 70% of Persuadable Skeptics believed these would be highly effective, as compared to 58% among Americans overall. Much of that came for the first proposal: clear goals measured by real-world results, with 82% of Persuadable Skeptics and 68% overall believing it highly effective. Confidence that the other three would be highly effective dropped into the 60s among Persuadable Skeptics and into the 50s overall.

Modernize management and technology.

The reforms in this category were somewhat less popular, with 55% believing they would be highly effective. The specific reforms are:

  • Reform hiring, firing, and personnel practices to improve quality and performance in the federal workforce.
  • Modernize information technology to improve the quality of government services.
  • Apply best private sector management practices to improve the performance of government programs.

As before, CAP found that more Persuadable Skeptics (averaging 63%) than overall Americans (54%) believed these would be highly effective. Personnel reforms scored highest – 66% of Persuadable Skeptics, 55% overall – which CAP said “reflects the public’s belief that another major source of waste is inefficient government employees receiving generous benefits or high salaries.”

Improve transparency.

These reforms scored lowest, with fewer than half of Americans believing they would be highly effective. The specific reforms are:

  • Provide public online tools to monitor government performance.
  • Publish an online report card showing progress toward national goals.
  • Offer online feedback tools so citizens can communicate with government officials.

An average 56% of Persuadable Skeptics believed these would be highly effective, as compared to 47% of overall. Online feedback tools rated lowest, with only 53% of Persuadable Skeptics and 44% overall believing it would be highly effective, perhaps because most officials and agencies already have such tools.

“Doing What Works” could work, or….

Color me a Persuadable Skeptic about “Doing What Works,” and which way I lean depends on who defines the goals. For example, “improving efficiency and reducing waste” sounds good until you consider how complex systems fail. Robust systems have redundancies and reserves that CAP’s reforms might define as inefficiency and waste, but without which a single mistake or unexpected challenge can snowball into a catastrophic failure. The genius of our constitutional structure is not its efficiency but its checks and balances.

Any reform package, however well-intended, can be made to fail if turned over to people intent on its failure. To quote Douglas Adams, “A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools” … or the ingenuity of those who believe the purpose of government is to ensure more wealth and privilege for the wealthy and privileged. Do we want a Treasury Department whose stated “clear goal … measured by real-world effects” is to concentrate 99% of America’s wealth in the hands of the top 1%?

CAP’s proposed reforms offer ways to “make the trains run on time,” but they don’t specify a destination. That can give you an express train to nowhere good.


Your Kossascopes are in today’s Campus Chatter.

Happy Friday!