Monday, April 18, 2005

Clear As Day (Screw You, Taxpayer!)

That we should get something for taxpayer money is a given, that is to anyone who isn't a politician. Talk of unrestrained free market leads to a slippery slope of anarcho-capitalism, and talk of state activism turns to socialism or totalitarianism. I like to turn out a more simplistic question, government should do what WORKS, or what it's capable of doing. Government Agencies are getting better at conveying what they're up to and what impact it is having, as a recent event from GMU's Mercatus Center and David Walker (Head of GAO) attest to. The federal government until recent history (pre-Clinton) was accountable to only one thing: satisfying the politics of the people running it. Since then, there's been an attempt (though half-assed because politics and mad rhetoric will always be king and queen), to make government about results. Labor, State, Transportation, and Veterans Affairs won awards from Mercatus for their performance reporting effort. (Note: This is about the quality of the reports, not the performance, hence why VA can get anywhere even though it's record is abysmal). Government Executive reports:

"The State, Commerce, and Justice departments were among the top-rated agencies that jumped up the ratings scale compared to fiscal 2003. "[State] has done a lot better job of defining outcomes and has shown steady improvement for several years," said Ellig. He added that the agency does an especially good job of clearly explaining its work to outsiders.

That ability--which Mercatus rates under its transparency criteria--is important not only so taxpayers can understand how an agency is performing, but so members of Congress can understand, said Ellig. "Members of Congress are not necessarily familiar with the minutiae of what agencies do," he said. "

So what's the issue? 90% of funding goes to agencies that rate below satisfactory. One of the worst reporters and least accountable agencies? DOD. . .the mother of all cash cows, with Homeland Security close behind. That calls for a word on the politics of this. You could consider me a small-government liberal, or perhaps an ideological pessimist. I believe that government can't solve problems except for a limited few, and the free market can't either except for a limited few. The issue is the uncertainty in what those few are. Conservatives rail against whatever they can, slashing anything they don't like (unless it might benefit a few wealthy buddies and/or has Defense written on it) with little regard to whether it has positive impact on the principle of smaller government as an end in itself. Liberals prop up and advocate programs that have never had any history of working because they theoretically "help people." A lot of this gets bogged down in hypocrisy, and sound judgments are never made because no one really asks the question "does the program work?" before they political assassinate it or reinforce it.

The sunshine of transparency is a tricky thing for government and politicians, and challenges even the most principled. Boosting the budgets of inspectors generals, GAOs, and program analysts is a double edged sword. It gives you ammo to wipe out political adversaries and their pet programs but puts you in the same shoes. And that's why these efforts aren't pushed as much as they should be, nor why program evaluation and transparency fall at the bottom of the list. Answering the question "What is the state capable of doing?" is a much more useful question than the ideology of "What should the state be doing?" At the very least you have to know the answer to the first question before you can answer the second question. The devil is in the details.