The 800lb gorilla – government accountability

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The latest View from the Q post brings up the 800lb gorilla in the room.  Paul Borawski wants to know why citizens expect and demand so little accountability for the poor use of resources in government? I do too.

Let’s face it, everyone has an opinion regarding government these days.  But, the difference is that we go to sleep at night with a sense of complacency.  Whether it’s a mass case of learned helpless or that we’re just too lazy to really do anything about it, overall accountability and general quality is indeed a laughing (crying) matter.  If public were private, we would be asking for a bailout about right now, which is optimistic in the face of insolvency.

The issue itself is overwhelming, but I have to believe there are small things each of us can do to affect the future of policy.  Little things…

1) Learn – As citizens, we need to spend time knowing and understanding what’s going on around us.  The government needs someone to be accountable to and “we” are it.

2) Vote – Many of us drag ourselves to the polls every four years, but we fail to get involved in the more local and smaller elections.  We should consider it our civic responsibility to make sure the right people land in public positions.  We’re counting on these people to be the champions of quality and the leaders of our nation, even on the smallest scale.

3) Talk – We shouldn’t shy away from talking about relevant issues.  The more we talk, the more awareness there is.  The more awareness there is, the more action.  The more action, the more results.  Results = Quality = 🙂

It’s because of the reasons Paul points out about government’s influence on our lives, economic security and our children’s future that we should demand government set an example. It’s not too late for us… Imagine this news headline:

“Government agency conducts root cause analysis and discovers inefficiencies.  Corrective action efforts have proven successful, with key indicators now meeting expectations.”

In his post, Paul reaches out for stories of success in the public sector.  Unfortunately, I’m at a loss trying to come up with one.  I’m sure there are isolated examples throughout the system, but it’s sad they are the exception and not the rule.  Who can I call in the government to talk about benchmarking and best practices?

“Where does an 800-pound gorilla sleep?

Anywhere it wants to.”

19 Comments

19 Comments

  1. Dallas Dunlap  •  May 18, 2012 @9:29 am

    I disagree with the premise that government is particularly inefficient or wasteful of resources. Govt differs from the private sector in that business firms have one underlying goal: To make profits. If they fail to do that, they go under sooner or later.
    But look at the waste, fraud, and abuse in the private sector: K-mart’s BOD buying corporate jets when they barely had cashiers in the stores, the numerous late 90s corporations that went broke laying fiberoptic cable, MF Global which managed to misplace a billion or so of money from investor accounts, the entire US investment banking system which managed to parlay home mortgages into instruments so complex that when housing prices went down, they collapsed the world economy. Recent history is replete with examples.
    But I manage to get around pretty well on government highways. I can put a stamp costing less than half a dollar on an envelope, drop it in a mailbox, and it will be delivered anywhere in the country in four days. Our government astronauts went to the moon and built a space station that’s still in orbit. Medicare takes care of the medical needs of senior citizens at a far lower overhead cost than any private company.
    Anybody who has been in the military can tell stories of baffling inefficiency. But, somehow, the US military manages to dominate the world. The US Coast Guard rescues boaters and others far out to sea. Government weather satellites, linked to the National Weather Service warn of us of storms and hurricanes. I remember what the air and water were like before the EPA. Trust me, it’s much better now.
    Govt agencies do what policy makers tell them to do. In general, they do it very well.They have a budget and they spend it. People who are unhappy with government should take a look at the policy makers.
    But rational ignorance rules. People don’t want to pay the price for learning what their representatives are doing. That’s why, representing a district that has one of the highest percentage of Medicare clients in the country, my Congressman was able to vote twice to abolish Medicare without catching any flak about it,

  2. jenn  •  May 18, 2012 @11:24 am

    Dallas, thank you for commenting! I won’t say I disagree with your perspective, but I think you may be missing my “bigger picture” argument. There’s “waste, fraud and abuse” in the public sector too and I won’t say that either are perfect. But, should we accept things the way they are, or should we demand to have the results we know are possible? What’s wrong with better?

    Stockholders demand results. I’m not sure the same is true of constituents these days. More people complain about this and that but seem unwilling to get involved or demand better. I’m just thinking a little kaizen would go a long way to not only improve our lives, but set an example for businesses and even other governments. What is the incentive now?

    “Rational ignorance rules”… Sad, but true.

  3. JC  •  May 30, 2012 @10:28 am

    As a Baby Boomer (1946), I believe that it is apathy generate by the people we elected to office. We have political parties that differ in basic believes, but do not effect change in the larger arena. Is it because of lack of fortitude, belief or resolve? No, it is because the lobbyist has generated an atmosphere that the electorate is focused on the “what is in it for me attitude’. Term limits, a balance budget and a return to the entreprenuer spirit is what I believe is needed in this country. I buy organic, I grow limited produce and we plan to can and preserve more food this year. I will not let the government dictate my life style. I served in the military and I will support the Commander in Chief of this country. He or she deserves that respect, and I will respect the beliefs of other even if I disagree with them. It is called respect and people (private, political and public sectors) have forgotten that.

  4. Denny Hill  •  May 30, 2012 @11:13 am

    Jenn, I have to agree with Dallas in that the root cause of fraud, waste, etc. in government is our elected officials. Take as a case in point some of the equipment that the military doesn’t want but gets anyway because it shores up a Senator’s or Representative’s voting base back home. Lots of other examples are obvious but I won’t go further about the federal government. I worked for a fast growing school district for eight years and that district had a great team at the time, form the school board down to the lowest level. Now that district is suffering because the leadership is dysfunctional, morale is in the tank and good people are bailing right and left. The bottom line is the elected leadership either makes or breaks a public entity. Look at the dysfunction in Washington DC and it’s easy to see why we can’t recover reasonably well from the recession. That problem is NOT because of the workers in the various departments being intentionally abusive or wasteful with resources; it comes almost entirely from a lack of direction/vision and cohesive goals. I suggest you try to work in those conditions and see how you fare. I seriously doubt that a root cause analysis or any other quality program would be effective unless you could possibly apply it to Congress and the White House. Oh, and good luck with that!

  5. Justin  •  May 30, 2012 @11:30 am

    Actually rational ignorance is slowly being shown to by a myth. It’s not ignorance, it’s more difference in opinions. I can tell Dallas and I have a vastly different opinion on Government, but hopefully we can all agree that the status quo isn’t plausible.
    One of the biggest problem is where to start. You have vast amounts of people that like the status quo, they benefit greatly, but negatives are spread out over everyone, there is no incentive to have any real change except in rhetoric. Unfortunatly those are in ample supply. This is simple public choice economics.

    The other issues is consistancy in the voting public. Far too often people of both major parties will only see the errors in the “other side” and will refuse to see them in their own. Or even worse, they will try and rationalize bad behavior by saying “The other side did it too.”

    I tend to disagree that more awareness will eventually lead to action. We have been aware that vast amounts of public spending doesn’t stimulate the economy anywhere except in a textbook, but that doesn’t stop politicians from trying everytime. We have been aware that price controls lead to shortages for decades, but that doesn’t stop politicans from touting them as the solution to some problem (ie Healthcare “reform”).

    That said I’m an optimist. Government inefficiencies and poor accountability has been around since Ancient Egypt and we still manage to prosper and grow.

  6. Rich GaTech1969  •  May 30, 2012 @11:47 am

    I disagree with Dallas’ statement that “business firms have one underlying goal: To make profits”. The Primary Objective of any business has to be “SERVICE”. Profit is the objective of the owners and will be realized if the business provides a needed service.

  7. Ben  •  May 30, 2012 @12:18 pm

    To look at waste in the government requires individuals to set aside their personal politics and look at it objectively. I float around several blogs on politics and I don’t see us as a society changing this anytime soon. The bulk of us can’t separate our personal politics from the gov’t.

    Greed is a huge driving factor in all of this from local gov’t to the federal level. You would have to get constituents in place that can separate politics from business. Highly unlikely, since politics are the driving factor in people getting involved in the first place.

    I personall think the school system needs to be revised to include life lessons. One of those being local government as a required course. People should be able to make intelligent voting choices and not based on “I don’t know this new guy” or “she is good looking, I’ll vote for her”. But also, the ‘educated’ ones only vote candidates on political issues, not whether they will control spending. By the way controlling spending has never been unilaterally applied, it is always politicized too.

  8. jenn  •  May 30, 2012 @1:47 pm

    I’m reading these comments and really can’t disagree. I agree that government officials are an issue, but we’ve elected these people to represent us. Most of the people I speak with just don’t care enough to dedicate the time to read up on things and be active with voting or otherwise expressing their opinions. It’s not just the government officials that are the problem… we are too!

    If I had to start anywhere with quality in government, it would be schools. If we could start fresh somehow and rebuild it with quality in mind, we could teach our youth how to solve all of these other problems and make sure they don’t happen again. Education is where it’s at, and it’s also where we’re failing.

    I really wish I had all of the answers. And, maybe that’s an issue too… The perception that the “government” is just too big of a mess to fix. So, we accept it for what it is and play our little role in everything. I still say though… We can do better!

  9. Steven Prevette  •  May 30, 2012 @2:48 pm

    I invite anyone to take a look at the work I’ve been doing supporting the government as a contractor for the Dept of Energy at first the Hanford site and now the Savannah River Site. You can check some of my past articles in QP, and current materials at http://www.efcog.org/wg/esh_es/Statistical_Process_Control/index.htm

    I ran across several folks at WCQI, and provided the Red Bead Experiment as an after 5 topic. Would have presented about the work in the DOE, but was not accepted as a paper. . ..

  10. Justin  •  May 30, 2012 @3:16 pm

    No one knows all the answers. Far too many people think they do though, hubris
    A 5 Why approach could be a good thing for government bodies. Why is this Bill/regulation/code needed? It would be interesting to see how many Whys people would go before they stop. I wouldn’t say greed is a root cause, all people are greedy to an extent. Lobbyists aren’t a root cause either. Nor is voter “education” or “ignorance.” People bias will lead them where they want to go, not necessarily to the best way to go. Take the financial crisis, most people of a certain political bent, will say that the cause was the repeal of Glass Steagall. That’s where their Whys end. They have their cause and they are happy with it. But when you ask another why, you’ll find that Glass Steagall would have done nothing to prevent the crisis.

  11. Mike Clayton  •  May 30, 2012 @5:54 pm

    I agree more with Dallas than Justin.
    I do vote, and try to get others to vote.
    We have idiots that get elected by their good looks, but we have checks and balances to at least STOP the idiocy, if not come up with better ideas.

    So I think a free press that can see the lies in the current batch of big-money-ads and print the facts, is one answer to the quality of government problem, as it has been for many years. But that good reporting can be over-whelmed by millions of dollars spent by billionaires to spread their private ideology while telling complete lies or partial truths…so I hope the public is smart enough to ignore those ads. If not, nothing that ASQ teams can do will fix the problems that big money creates.

    I want accountability from the SUPER PACS, whose money, what are the sources of the “facts” they state.

    I want accountability from those who are demanding war with Syria and Iran, just to justify more military hardware expenditures we do not need (like more Trident Submarines, more C 117’s, more aircraft carriers…old stories…or more F-35’s than necessary..a new story. ) Most of our governmental problems are caused by private greed influencing short-time electorate. So perhaps term-limits are really a bad idea!! We need more professional watchdogs in Federal, State, and Local government and in the press, following the money.

  12. jenn  •  May 30, 2012 @6:25 pm

    Mike, the checks and balances aren’t working though. I vote too and share in the same frustration. Free press is a major component for change, but can they compete with other interested parties that have more money? How do we change the system?

    I demand accountability from the SUPER PACS, but the officials we’re electing are the ones making the rules in that regard. And, they are in quite a pickle when it comes down to tempting incentives vs the representing the voice of their respective constituents.

    I want more accountability for every location we send people off in harm’s way. We need less war and more focus on how we can improve lives here. I have no problem helping out other countries with aid, but we just need to clean our house first, you know. We can’t afford to be the world’s “peacekeepers”…

    I LOVE the idea of term limits and think that should be a no-brainer! I’m glad you pointed that out Mike! That’s a great way to hold people accountable, so we can’t continue to vote in the same people over and over simply because they didn’t “screw anything big up.” Serving in the government should be a public service and not a career at that level.

    These comments are great…

  13. Somo  •  May 30, 2012 @11:26 pm

    I don’t know how anyone can criticize or commend quality of government without first of making some definitions about quality. If you disagree that government shouldn’t be involved in healthcare, then you will call that a wasteful and costly process. But if you are elderly and without a pension, then Medicare would be seen as a very cost effective process. To discuss the legislative branch as being inefficient, maybe you can count the number of laws that are passed (are more laws better?), or if they only passed one law per year, is that better — or is it extremely inefficient? I think that our form of government is not like a business in that it doesn’t operate effectively without crisis and ability to get citizens moving in a direction. Say what you will about the quality perspective of ‘preventative’ action, things don’t work that way. Look at the major challenges to the U.S. over the last century, all were addressed at some point AFTER the problem was exposed, Social Security, civil rights, environmental protection. If you don’t agree they represent ‘quality’ legislation, then that is your definition. If you believe that the legislation was ‘quality’, you have to remember that there were significant drivers in place in order to get the legislation passed. Afghanistan was a major terrorist hotbed before 2001. I remember reading about concerns about Al Queda and the Taliban well before 9/11, but do you think that a majority of the country would have supported a pre-emptive strike during the first months of 2001? What about climate change. Despite what many think, most climatologist have data and facts to support that climate change is happening now. But this hasn’t been enough to make any impact on policy. If the climatologists are wrong, then the right ‘quality’ decision is being made right now; but if they are right, then the impact on society may be devastating. But the ‘quality’ of the decision right now is based only on what somebody thinks. We can all judge that better in 20 years.

    Likewise, I have heard criticism of government activities that people are involved with everyday, such as license bureaus, unemployment offices, etc. When they go into the office and only a few people are attending to people, then the office staff is too bloated. However, when they walk into the same office and they have to wait several hours to get waited on, then the staff is lazy or inefficient. People have a very poor sense of variability and how it affects staffing and work load, and unfortunately, many improvement activities would probably work on the “F”Law of averages rather than to improve performance variability.

    I think it is good to discuss what quality means in government, but it seems very shortsighted to me to be judging whether we have or don’t have a ‘quality’ government right now without the agreed upon objectives or measures.

  14. jenn  •  May 31, 2012 @6:42 am

    The widely accepted definition of quality is meeting or exceeding expectations. I’m going to go ahead and say that government (as a whole or in its parts) does not match this definition. Do you know anyone who can say their tax dollars are being spent wisely or that their representatives truly have their interests (or any greater constituent interest) at heart?

    The idea of this discussion is certainly not to belittle the U.S. government. It’s to suggest that improvement is needed to be the best we can be… It’s to suggest that continuous improvement is important and that quality tools are an excellent way this can be accomplished. A little lean goes a long way…

    It’s not about what the government should or should not be involved in either. That would be a discussion once you’ve thoroughly reviewed the system and determined what the strategy (objectives) are. Of course, the metrics follow the objectives, but I’d argue the whole lot is blurry right now… lacks accountability and doesn’t seem to have incentive to be better.

    It’s a broader analysis (opinion) about the government and how a little “quality magic” could make it better. It’s not the blame game… I just think we’re capable of much more with the tools and knowledge available to us.

  15. Justin  •  May 31, 2012 @11:35 am

    I agree with Somo about is that there needs to be a definition of what Quality in Government accountability means. We can argue all day about quality legislation…which is an excersie in foolishness because of its subjectivity.

    You’ll have multiple problem statements, but you need to have good problem statements and ones that can be measured as objectively as possible.

    But if your going to try and improve government, you need to ask what is your goal? I think political discussions have far too few actual goals and far to many opinions. I don’t think you’ll ever have any agreement on what the goal would be since people have fundamentally philisophical disagreements on the role of government to begin with.

    The other problem would be who regulates the regulators? In a Republican form of government that we have, it should be the voters. They don’t do such a great job, partially due to education but also mostly due to differing world views and biases.
    Most likely you’d have a government agency, OMB or GSA, to audit and be in charge of the corrective action process. Unfortunatly, they are not the best ones to be doing that (GSA Vegas debacle). We know that during the financial crisis, SEC auditors were too busy surfing porn on the internet than actually doing their jobs. (http://voices.washingtonpost.com/federal-eye/2010/04/eye_opener_porn_and_federal_wo.html) Of course that doesn’t even mention the conflict of interest of the Government auditing the Government? Who’s gonna do it?

    Unfortunitly, I think it comes down to voters. They have to hold their representatives accountable. I don’t think term limits will have any real effect. It will just make the bastards steal more the closer they get closer to their limits. (Excellent podcast on the Political Economy of Power, if anyone is interested here: http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2006/08/the_political_e.html)

    Personally, IMO I think government welds too much power and there are too many special interests that make influence peddling to lucrative to pass up. Can we trust the Government to limit their own power? I have ocean front property to sell you in New Mexico of you do believe that. (Cheap shot I know) I think the best answer to accountability is by the decentrilization of power like they have in Switzerland. That way the lead auditor will be the local voter. They can audit from the local paper instead of from the thousands of pages of the Federal Register. They can interview their representatives at the local grocery store or diner, instead of making an appointment for 1 of 30 days that their Federal Gov’t Rep are actually in their local offices and not being lavashed on by lobbyists. I think the only way to limit the influence on K street is to limits the power Congress has, so that it’s not economically viable to have a K street. Like I said these are just my opinons, and we all know how much opinons are worth.

    Very interesting discussion though. I do think we are capable of better. But I think our biggest problem will be trying to determine better compared to what?

  16. Ben  •  May 31, 2012 @11:37 am

    People bias will lead them where they want to go, not necessarily to the best way to go.

    This statement along with the ones I made earlier are at the heart of the point I was trying to make. Government’s current and previous actions are our doing. We the people, control what happens, government’s results. Our apathy and/ or bias results in the waste, fraud, and abuse that exists. For every situation that one deems to be waste, fraud and abuse, I bet you can find hundreds, or thousands that support it, usually, not always, due to a personal financial impact of the consequences.

    Having said that, where does this come from? “Peoples’ bias will lead them where they want to go, not necessarily to the best way to go”. I looked at my son sitting in the incubator 30 seconds after he was born. I saw a blank slate. Any bias he carries with him today, 14 years later, largely came from my wife and I. It’s our responsibility to change. The people that have kids would need to teach them how to think and act objectively in almost all situations, not to be just as biased as I am, or our current generations, or previous generations.

    For example:
    If you/your family subscribe to any particular religion, and you teach your children that this religion is the only one, you have biased them to a level that they may never be able to look at anything objectively. The religion will then dictate many of the thought processes and biases that form many of their current and future actions.

  17. Somo  •  May 31, 2012 @9:15 pm

    Re: “The widely accepted definition of quality is meeting or exceeding expectations. I’m going to go ahead and say that government (as a whole or in its parts) does not match this definition.” I agree with the definition. But I don’t think we will be able to develop the ‘expectations’ because of the varying demands of the ‘customers’ (the citizens). If you can’t define or come to agreement on the expectations, how can you define whether the outcome is of ‘quality’ or not? Do we let citizens vote on the expectations, or do they already vote on them when they vote for representatives? What about the influence of PACs — maybe money should be the controlling factor? I think some may say that the expectation can be developed by the majority, but the U.S. government is specifically designed (or at least ‘was designed’) so that majority does not exploit the minority.

    As far as the second point, concerning the ‘waste’ of tax dollars as an indication that government has poor quality. Again, that is very subjective. How do you define waste, especially in comparison to private industry? I’ve dealt with different government ‘bureaucrats” over the years, and I have found them very frugal with government (our) money. Overall, they stick to firm limits on travel and expenses; and usually have well-developed work processes. (yes, I know there are costly junkets, but they have been exposed and corrective actions taken . . . rather than being evidence of waste, I think it indicates that ‘quality’ is important since corrective action – termination – was immediate).

    Further on the tax dollar issue, it is pretty well documented that administration of the Medicare program has much lower overhead costs than equivalent overhead costs for private insurers. I don’t like the idea of building new roads in California (waste to me), but it would be pretty good for me to improve high speed rail on the east coast (not wasteful).

    On a lower governmental level, I could see a state or local government official maybe putting in a quality standard such as, “customers calling the (license bureau?) will wait no longer than 6 minutes before they are able to speak with a live person.” Pretty good expectation, shows good customer service. Most people should be happy – right? But what if this requires 3 ‘extra’ people to handle peak load?, How does that sit with the others that call that a wasteful use of tax dollars?

    I don’t have many answers. I agree that the standard definition of quality applies, but if the ‘expectation’ can’t be defined, then you can’t define whether the result is quality or not. But that said, I will make my first attempt at defining the expectation for government, at least for the U.S. government. That is, the foremost expectation for the U.S. government is to protect the Constitution today and in the future. I don’t think that would be possible without ensuring that the wealth, health and well-being of the population.

  18. jenn  •  May 31, 2012 @9:41 pm

    If we could just reengineer the whole darn system (breaking down process by process and making it as fine-turned as possible) using the expectation you’ve noted here, it would be a great start to something really good. At some point, I feel like we’ve gotten a little side tracked. It’s time to apply our foundation to what we’ve got going on today and keep track of whether that’s working or not and then hold the people doing the work accountable for the results. What we do should evolve with the times but stay true to the underlying commitment. As noted…

    “That is, the foremost expectation for the U.S. government is to protect the Constitution today and in the future. I don’t think that would be possible without ensuring that the wealth, health and well-being of the population.”

  19. Ben  •  Jun 5, 2012 @6:59 am

    I think these comments and outlook are great! If we had more people that thought this way, there might be a chance to fix the govermental waste and overall operation of government. I think the majority of the posted comments are spot on relating to the original topic.

    The simple statement of ‘how do we hold government accountable for waste fraud and abuse’ can’t be answered without taking political motivations into account. As others have posted, unless you have a majority vote on the required standard quality aspects, you can’t implement them in this situation. It’s not as simple as in a business setting where everyone (or just the owner) is working toward the same goal.

    Also, waste fraud and abuse are results of actions, but not necessarily related to quality. If I build an airplane that flies for several hundred thousand miles without maintenance needs or accidents, it is a quality product. If I wasted 5 million of the 20 million budget for the plane, does that mean it’s not ‘quality’? It means I probably will not have a successful business, but does not mean it’s not a quality product.

    We can do better. My view is that it requires education on a wide variety of topics and developed sense of ‘what’s right for the whole society, not just the individual’.

    We have to do things that are outside our norm. We spend the bulk of the second part of our lives becoming a ‘subject matter expert’ in the field that we choose for a career. Unless your career is in a governmental managing position, this is asking you to learn enough about additional subjects (from your chosen career) to make informed decisions about the results. When you add in ‘caveat emptor’ for all the other facets of our life, it’s easy to become overwhelmed with the amount of things we must/should “know” in order to take care of ourselves.