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Idea Lab

DLC | E-newsletter | April 30, 2010
Reinventing Government, Round Two

Today we launch a new product -- the DLC's Idea Lab, a biweekly look at big policy and political topics and innovative ways to deal with them. Our first edition takes up an issue at the foundation of all policy -- public trust in government -- and the long-standing DLC theme of "reinventing government" as a key to restoring and preserving it.

The point of departure is a poll, conducted by the Pew Center in March, which found trust in government at a generational low. Only 22 percent of Americans, it finds, trust the federal government to "do what is right" most or all of the time. By contrast, 65 percent said they trusted government "only sometimes," and 11 percent insisted "never."

Conservatives take the poll as evidence for a massive backlash against the Obama administration. Some Democrats retort that it reflects a judgment on the Bush administration -- a war launched on a mistaken premise, the Katrina fiasco, the financial crisis -- plus the natural effect of a severe recession, which better policies and economic recovery will reverse in due time. And a third take comes from veteran political analysts Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin in The Democratic Strategist last week.

Grimly conceding that the poll reflects genuinely held feelings that go beyond recent experience and current suffering, T. and H. say "the majority of Americans -- across party lines -- believe it is a major problem that the federal government is often wasteful and inefficient, does too little for average Americans, and has policies that unfairly benefit some groups." Their response is that Democrats need to take up arms as the intellectual defenders of government per se, and convince the public that it is wrong: "progressives need to constantly argue that government plays a vital role in promoting human freedom and advancing national prosperity."

We have a different take. To us the poll's most interesting finding is not the high level of distrust in the abstract, but the sophistication and selectivity of public views on government. Contrary to conservative assumptions, the public's complaint is not that the government is overreaching or spending on services of no value -- by 50-38, as Teixeira and Halpin point out, it thinks government is wasting money and managing its job inefficiently. And beneath this general opinion, deeper into the poll's top-line questionnaire, we find some parts of the government getting very high ratings.

Between 67 and 83 percent of the public give the military services and the Defense Department, the Centers for Disease Control, NASA, and the Postal Service "good" or "excellent" ratings. These agencies appear to have earned reputations for meritocracy, sense of mission, efficiency, and high achievement. By contrast, views of the Justice Department, the Education Department, the FDA, the Social Security Administration, the CIA, and the IRS are much lower. And Congress fares worst. Viewed as an arena for hyperpartisanship, rancor, and unwillingness to cooperate on shared goals, it takes much of the blame for the bad reputation of government in general.

These findings are a guide for Democrats in government over the next two years. A campaign to educate the public about the value of government per se will come off as unwillingness to rethink bureaucracies and take efficiency seriously. The distaste for rancor in Congress suggests that populist "fighting for you" formulations -- on right and left alike -- often strike the public merely as unproductive "fighting" for tactical advantage within an unresponsive political system.

The better approach is self-evident. First, learn from success. The military services, the federal science and research agencies, and the post office get high marks. Democrats should be learning from their successes and bringing them to other agencies. This is especially important as fiscal stimulus comes to an end and fiscal policy shifts from stimulating the economy to reducing deficits and debt growth: The more we achieve through efficiency and ending waste, the less we will need to do through taxation and reduction of services.

This brings us back to one of the DLC's founding ideas: the crusade for "reinventing government" we advocated during the late 1980s, and whose first iteration Vice President Al Gore oversaw in the early 1990s through a top-to-bottom review of agency organization and management. Nothing similar has happened since. The time is now for reinvention, round two.

Note from DLC President Ed Gresser: The Idea Lab will come out on alternate Fridays, as a short-form look at a large issue where politics and policy meet, from the modernizing progressive perspective of the New Democrat movement. In coming weeks we'll take up the Democratic Party's struggles with trade policy; the budget challenge and the White House's Fiscal Responsibility and Reform Commission; the place of unions and labor law in early 21st-century America; the Republican Party's misguided search for ideological purity; the darkening future of the Middle East; and state government innovation during crisis. As always, we appreciate your comments, dissents and ideas: We'll get back to you on all of them, and (with your permission) publish the most interesting responses.

And some links:

Pew's poll on trust in government -- see in particular the top-line questionnaire and question 52 on the reputation of individual agencies:

Expert David Osborne writes for the DLC on efficiency in the health system as a key to successful health reform:

Teixeira and Halpin in the Democratic Strategist:

And from a while back, Vice President Gore reviews the first Reinventing Government initiative: