Doing what works pays political dividends

Opinion surveys show overwhelming majorities favor government action to address healthcare and energy. But the public also sees government as wasteful and inefficient; there is little confidence government will get it right when it comes to specifics.

This mistrust helps explain why broad public agreement for action did not translate into broad support for healthcare reform, and why energy and climate legislation faces a similarly challenging road ahead.

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Some blame a failure in messaging. Others blame excessive partisanship or the influence of special interests. These factors likely have all played a role, but it still has been remarkably easy for opponents of action to bend public opinion. Many members of Congress now see only political upside in voting to do nothing on issues where more than two-thirds of the country believes action is necessary.

The story might be different if attitudes about government were reversed. It makes sense to resist big changes if you believe that (1) federal policymaking is primarily the product of inside deals and special-interest influence and (2) government is incapable of efficiently and effectively executing new policies — even if they are well designed. Many Americans clearly agree with these propositions, including a large number of swing voters.

A change in attitudes requires much more than a public relations strategy. First and foremost, Americans must see government acting responsibly and working to deliver maximum bang for the buck. President Barack Obama got it right in his Inaugural address: “[T]hose of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account, to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day, because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.”

The administration has taken a number of important actions to find budget savings, boost government productivity, and provide greater transparency.

But government faces deeper, more fundamental challenges that will take ongoing attention and years to fully address — especially in the wake of the Bush administration’s destructive legacy.

The Obama administration cannot meet these challenges alone either. Congress and the executive branch need to see themselves as partners in transformation. Both must change and work together in new ways to build a government that earns public trust.

The Center for American Progress’s “Doing What Works” project is working to advance this agenda on three key fronts.

First, we should eliminate or reform misguided spending programs and tax expenditures and redirect savings to cost-effective investments. Some federal programs have not met expectations or have outlived their relevance. Others duplicate or overlap each other but are not well coordinated. And many tax expenditures are just giveaways to special interests, such as oil and mining companies.

A host of political and institutional obstacles stand in the way of addressing these inefficiencies — including the Senate filibuster, powerful but narrow special-interest groups, widespread leadership vacancies in the executive branch, and a built-in bias for tax expenditures, whether they work or not. These obstacles must be overcome or removed.

Second, we should build a foundation for smarter decision-making by enhancing performance assessment and transparency. New information technologies provide the opportunity to rethink and modernize policymaking and management systems, which remain rooted in another era.

It is now possible — and affordable — to instantaneously gather and analyze enormous volumes of data to measure and evaluate government performance. This information can then be publicly shared and packaged through the Internet. With the right tools, thousands of extra eyes can be enlisted to uncover problems and offer solutions. Reforms are needed to put decision-makers in position to capitalize on new technological capabilities, learn from the evidence, and adjust accordingly.

And third, we should be ready to execute. Even the best policies can be sabotaged by operational problems, which are widespread within federal agencies. Bloated management drags down responsiveness. Outdated information technology impedes information sharing across federal agencies and programs. Federal contracting is too expensive and lacks adequate oversight. And the federal hiring process is slow and cumbersome at a time when new talent is needed to replenish the federal workforce. Addressing these deficiencies would give government productivity a significant boost.

President Obama has proposed to freeze non-security, discretionary spending — which accounted for 15 percent of all federal spending in fiscal 2010 — over the next three years. Major challenges in energy, education, and other priority areas may have to be addressed with little or no additional funding.

Government, by necessity, must operate efficiently and direct resources where they are needed most and to efforts that generate the greatest returns.

This makes policy sense, and it makes political sense. Let’s build a government that does what works.

Podesta is the president and CEO of the Center for American Progress. Rushing is CAP’s director of government reform.