Skip to main content

Why government fails, and what we should do about it

08/13/2014 06:24PM, Published by Lev, Categories: In Print, Opinion



By Lee H. Hamilton

As election season approaches, I’ve been pondering a crucial issue about the role of government in our society. It’s that our government often fails — and that we need to address this. What’s odd is that while the frequent failures in government’s performance are very much on ordinary people’s minds, politicians don’t talk much about fixing them.

True, you might hear a few words about the issue when members are back in their districts this month revving up their re-election campaigns, but for the most part they’ll be focused on issues like jobs and the economy. This is understandable, because that’s what their constituents expect to hear about.

But it’s also a shame, because we need a healthy dialogue about why government often fails and how to fix it. There’s ample cause for concern. The VA appointments scandal; the botched launch of the Affordable Care Act; duplicative programs to help low-income families; the 28 years of missed inspections that led to the explosion of the fertilizer plant in West, Texas; scandals at the General Services Administration and the Secret Service; a broken federal appointments process; the regulatory screwups that contributed to the Great Recession; auto recalls that should have happened much sooner than they did; the failure to prevent the 9/11 terrorist attacks by sharing information within government; bridge collapses and infrastructure failures.... There’s a long and dispiriting list of occasions when the federal government has fallen short.

Yet the issues surrounding government performance don’t stir the passions. Progress comes slowly, the media’s not especially interested in the tedious story of building competence, and politicians themselves look for home runs, not singles. They want to make grand proposals, not spend their time digging into the nuts and bolts of fixing bureaucracies.

Moreover, as political scientist Paul C. Light has amply demonstrated, government failures happen for a long list of reasons that cannot be fixed easily, painlessly or quickly. Sometimes problems are rooted in policies that were ill-conceived, too complicated, or not well communicated. Sometimes the policies were fine, but the resources necessary to implement them were inadequate or misused. Politics often gets in the way of good policy, with efforts to undermine programs by making their implementation difficult or by cutting staffs and budgets.

There are organizational and institutional problems, poor oversight, poor leadership — no matter how good a policy, if good people aren’t available to carry it out, it will fail — and government’s alarming difficulty attracting and keeping highly qualified administrators. Often, leaders are bored by the nitty-gritty of management.

Still, these are challenges, not barriers. If our political leaders wanted to focus on improving government management and policy implementation, there’s no shortage of fixes they could make.

— They could ensure that federal agencies use pilot and trial programs much more frequently than they do now.

— They could mandate better and more rigorous evaluation procedures and the use of metrics that lay bare what works and what doesn’t. There’s more attention being paid these days to efficacy than there used to be, but it’s still a trickle compared to what’s needed.

— They could avoid rushing to announce programs, strive to get it right rather then get it quickly, and pay as much attention to follow-through as to the launch. Think about long term, not the next election, and make sure the mission is sharply defined.

— They could devote far more attention to how government will recruit, retain, and train the smart, highly qualified workers we need to carry out ever-more-complex programs. And they could vow to reduce the number of political appointees in favor of filling most positions on the basis of merit.

— They should certainly flatten the chain of command and reduce the layers of bureaucracy within federal departments and agencies, so that it’s easier for top administrators to see what’s taking place on the front lines.

— In the case of Congress, it needs to ensure that vigorous oversight of programs becomes a habit, not the rarity it is now.

All of us want government to fail less often, whatever our political stripe. So here’s my suggestion: As election season approaches, insist that your favored candidate work harder on making government more effective and efficient.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.



Like what you're reading? Subscribe to Chester County's free newsletter to catch every headline



lee h. hamilton


You might also like

Why incumbents keep getting reelected

Lee H. Hamilton for the week of July 30th, 2014.

Why I still have faith in Congress

Lee H. Hamilton for the week of June 4, 2014.

  • DFVA Greenville Summer Art Show

    05/29/2015
    10:00am — 07:00pm

    An impressive group of over thirty outstanding professional artists from the Brandywine Valley ar...


  • DFVA Summer Art Show

    05/29/2015
    10:00am — 07:00pm

    An impressive group of outstanding professional artists from the Brandywine Valley area will exhi...


  • Sunday Brunch

    05/29/2015
    11:00am — 02:00pm

    Every Sunday from 11-2PM Continental Buffet, Waffle bar, fresh fruits, Mimosa, Bloody Mary an...


  • PurpleStride Delaware 2015 - 5K Run/Walk

    05/30/2015
    08:00am — 11:00am

    The Delaware Affiliate of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network is hosting its third annual Purple...


  • PurpleStride Delaware 2015 - 5K Run/Walk

    05/30/2015
    08:00am — 11:00am

    PurpleStride 2015 is a 5K run and family friendly walk. The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network is b...


  • Multi-Family Yard Sale in Oxford

    05/30/2015
    09:00am — 03:00pm

    Electronics, tools, baby clothes, toys, kitchen, bath, bedding, decorations, crafts and so much more


  • CLAY MONOPRINTING WITH MITCH LYONS

    05/30/2015
    10:00am — 04:00pm

    CLAY MONOPRINTING WITH MITCH LYONS Level: All levels, Limit: 10 students Instructor: Mitch Lyon...


  • The Chester Springs Studio wood kiln is a two chamber noborigama, constructed in 2014 during a wo...


  • DFVA Greenville Summer Art Show

    05/30/2015
    10:00am — 07:00pm

    An impressive group of over thirty outstanding professional artists from the Brandywine Valley ar...


  • DFVA Summer Art Show

    05/30/2015
    10:00am — 07:00pm

    An impressive group of outstanding professional artists from the Brandywine Valley area will exhi...


  • OA-BEST Expo

    05/30/2015
    10:00am — 02:00pm

    FUN FOR ALL! The Chester and Lancaster County communities have always been tied deeply to the ro...


  • Sunday Brunch

    05/30/2015
    11:00am — 02:00pm

    Every Sunday from 11-2PM Continental Buffet, Waffle bar, fresh fruits, Mimosa, Bloody Mary an...


  • Explore Native Orchids

    05/30/2015
    01:00pm — 03:00pm

    Discover what makes native orchids so special. Join Smithsonian’s orchid expert Tom Mirenda as he...


  • Pawty at the Preserve

    05/30/2015
    03:00pm — 07:00pm

    Join Canine Partners for Life at Pawty at the Preserve, as we celebrate 25 years of creating life...


  • Gentle Yoga

    06/03/2015
    05:00pm — 06:00pm

    Reduce the aches and pains of age by increasing your range of motion through the practice of yoga...


  • Hatha Yoga

    06/03/2015
    06:30pm — 07:30pm

    This series of vigorous exercises is designed to strengthen the body and increase flexibility whi...


  • Sunday Brunch

    06/04/2015
    11:00am — 02:00pm

    Every Sunday from 11-2PM Continental Buffet, Waffle bar, fresh fruits, Mimosa, Bloody Mary an...


  • Clutterers Anonymous

    06/04/2015
    06:00pm — 07:00pm

    Clutterers Anonymous℠ (CLA℠) is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strengt...


  • 5th Annual Twisted Vintner

    06/04/2015
    06:00pm — 09:00pm

    Concordville - Chadds Ford Rotary's fundraiser to support local charities includes Wine, Beer and...


  • DFVA Greenville Summer Art Show

    05/29/2015
    10:00am — 07:00pm

    An impressive group of over thirty outstanding professional artists from the Brandywine Valley ar...


  • DFVA Summer Art Show

    05/29/2015
    10:00am — 07:00pm

    An impressive group of outstanding professional artists from the Brandywine Valley area will exhi...


  • Sunday Brunch

    05/29/2015
    11:00am — 02:00pm

    Every Sunday from 11-2PM Continental Buffet, Waffle bar, fresh fruits, Mimosa, Bloody Mary an...


  • PurpleStride Delaware 2015 - 5K Run/Walk

    05/30/2015
    08:00am — 11:00am

    The Delaware Affiliate of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network is hosting its third annual Purple...


  • PurpleStride Delaware 2015 - 5K Run/Walk

    05/30/2015
    08:00am — 11:00am

    PurpleStride 2015 is a 5K run and family friendly walk. The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network is b...


  • Multi-Family Yard Sale in Oxford

    05/30/2015
    09:00am — 03:00pm

    Electronics, tools, baby clothes, toys, kitchen, bath, bedding, decorations, crafts and so much more


  • CLAY MONOPRINTING WITH MITCH LYONS

    05/30/2015
    10:00am — 04:00pm

    CLAY MONOPRINTING WITH MITCH LYONS Level: All levels, Limit: 10 students Instructor: Mitch Lyon...


  • The Chester Springs Studio wood kiln is a two chamber noborigama, constructed in 2014 during a wo...


  • DFVA Greenville Summer Art Show

    05/30/2015
    10:00am — 07:00pm

    An impressive group of over thirty outstanding professional artists from the Brandywine Valley ar...


  • DFVA Summer Art Show

    05/30/2015
    10:00am — 07:00pm

    An impressive group of outstanding professional artists from the Brandywine Valley area will exhi...


  • OA-BEST Expo

    05/30/2015
    10:00am — 02:00pm

    FUN FOR ALL! The Chester and Lancaster County communities have always been tied deeply to the ro...


  • Sunday Brunch

    05/30/2015
    11:00am — 02:00pm

    Every Sunday from 11-2PM Continental Buffet, Waffle bar, fresh fruits, Mimosa, Bloody Mary an...


  • Explore Native Orchids

    05/30/2015
    01:00pm — 03:00pm

    Discover what makes native orchids so special. Join Smithsonian’s orchid expert Tom Mirenda as he...


  • Pawty at the Preserve

    05/30/2015
    03:00pm — 07:00pm

    Join Canine Partners for Life at Pawty at the Preserve, as we celebrate 25 years of creating life...


  • Multi-Family Yard Sale in Oxford

    05/31/2015
    09:00am — 03:00pm

    Electronics, tools, baby clothes, toys, kitchen, bath, bedding, decorations, crafts and so much more


  • CLAY MONOPRINTING WITH MITCH LYONS

    05/31/2015
    10:00am — 04:00pm

    CLAY MONOPRINTING WITH MITCH LYONS Level: All levels, Limit: 10 students Instructor: Mitch Lyon...


  • The Chester Springs Studio wood kiln is a two chamber noborigama, constructed in 2014 during a wo...


  • Half the Money, all the bottle. Every Tuesday

    05/31/2015
    11:00am — 09:00pm

    EVERY TUESDAY ‎Half the money, all the bottle.1/2 Price Bottle of Wine / Every Tuesday with your...


  • Taste Kennett Food Tours

    05/31/2015
    01:00pm — 04:00pm

    Taste Kennett Food Tours, creators of memorable, unique and fun food experiences, offer three-hou...


  • Taste Kennett Food Tours

    05/31/2015
    01:00pm — 04:00pm

    Taste Kennett Food Tours, creators of memorable, unique and fun food experiences, offer three-hou...


  • Half the Money, all the bottle. Every Tuesday

    06/01/2015
    11:00am — 09:00pm

    EVERY TUESDAY ‎Half the money, all the bottle.1/2 Price Bottle of Wine / Every Tuesday with your...


  • Monday's are Whiskey nights at Minihane's

    06/01/2015
    05:00pm — 11:00pm

    Whisky is not the same as Whiskey! There is some debate about whether or not Scottish distill...


  • Debtors Anonymous

    06/01/2015
    06:00pm — 07:00pm

    In D.A., our purpose is threefold: to stop incurring unsecured debt, to share our experience wit...


  • Half the Money, all the bottle. Every Tuesday

    06/02/2015
    11:00am — 09:00pm

    EVERY TUESDAY ‎Half the money, all the bottle.1/2 Price Bottle of Wine / Every Tuesday with your...


  • Wilmington Handbell Ensemble Concert

    06/02/2015
    07:30pm — 08:15pm

    Presents our spring concert program, "March On"


  • Gentle Yoga

    06/03/2015
    05:00pm — 06:00pm

    Reduce the aches and pains of age by increasing your range of motion through the practice of yoga...


  • Hatha Yoga

    06/03/2015
    06:30pm — 07:30pm

    This series of vigorous exercises is designed to strengthen the body and increase flexibility whi...


  • Sunday Brunch

    06/04/2015
    11:00am — 02:00pm

    Every Sunday from 11-2PM Continental Buffet, Waffle bar, fresh fruits, Mimosa, Bloody Mary an...


  • Clutterers Anonymous

    06/04/2015
    06:00pm — 07:00pm

    Clutterers Anonymous℠ (CLA℠) is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strengt...


  • 5th Annual Twisted Vintner

    06/04/2015
    06:00pm — 09:00pm

    Concordville - Chadds Ford Rotary's fundraiser to support local charities includes Wine, Beer and...


  • Milburn's Grand Re-Opening of the Farm Market, BIG BackYard, and Orchard View Deck is Friday, Jun...


  • Sunday Brunch

    06/05/2015
    11:00am — 02:00pm

    Every Sunday from 11-2PM Continental Buffet, Waffle bar, fresh fruits, Mimosa, Bloody Mary an...


  • On June 6th, the Avon Grove High School Football Team will be hosting a community yard sale. Tab...


  • The Chester Springs Studio wood kiln is a two chamber noborigama, constructed in 2014 during a wo...


  • Sunday Brunch

    06/06/2015
    11:00am — 02:00pm

    Every Sunday from 11-2PM Continental Buffet, Waffle bar, fresh fruits, Mimosa, Bloody Mary an...


  • 2015 Chester County Blues Barbeque

    06/06/2015
    02:00pm — 07:00pm

    The Chester County Blues BBQ is an annual event sponsored by the Coventry Lions Club featuring re...


  • Sustainable Splurges: A Feast for the Senses

    06/06/2015
    06:00pm — 08:00pm

    Enjoy delicious, locally made foods – wine, chocolate, honey and cheese – while roaming an exclu...


  • 150th Anniversary Civil War Reconciliation Ball

    06/06/2015
    06:00pm — 10:00pm

    Dinner, Dancing and an Auction! Reconciliation Ball to Commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the e...


  • The Chester Springs Studio wood kiln is a two chamber noborigama, constructed in 2014 during a wo...


  • Half the Money, all the bottle. Every Tuesday

    06/07/2015
    11:00am — 09:00pm

    EVERY TUESDAY ‎Half the money, all the bottle.1/2 Price Bottle of Wine / Every Tuesday with your...


  • Steamin' Day at Auburn Heights

    06/07/2015
    12:30pm — 04:30pm

    Join the Marshall Steam Museum at Auburn Heights for the first Steamin' Day of the season! New fo...


  • Taste Kennett Food Tours

    06/07/2015
    01:00pm — 04:00pm

    Taste Kennett Food Tours, creators of memorable, unique and fun food experiences, offer three-hou...


  • Taste Kennett Food Tours

    06/07/2015
    01:00pm — 04:00pm

    Taste Kennett Food Tours, creators of memorable, unique and fun food experiences, offer three-hou...


  • Mt. Cuba Center Plein Air Workshop

    06/08/2015
    09:30am — 03:30pm

    Appreciate the intricacies of painting outdoors as you interpret the beauty of Mt. Cuba Center's ...


  • Half the Money, all the bottle. Every Tuesday

    06/08/2015
    11:00am — 09:00pm

    EVERY TUESDAY ‎Half the money, all the bottle.1/2 Price Bottle of Wine / Every Tuesday with your...


  • Monday's are Whiskey nights at Minihane's

    06/08/2015
    05:00pm — 11:00pm

    Whisky is not the same as Whiskey! There is some debate about whether or not Scottish distill...


  • Debtors Anonymous

    06/08/2015
    06:00pm — 07:00pm

    In D.A., our purpose is threefold: to stop incurring unsecured debt, to share our experience wit...


  • Mt. Cuba Center Plein Air Workshop

    06/09/2015
    09:30am — 03:30pm

    Appreciate the intricacies of painting outdoors as you interpret the beauty of Mt. Cuba Center's ...


  • Half the Money, all the bottle. Every Tuesday

    06/09/2015
    11:00am — 09:00pm

    EVERY TUESDAY ‎Half the money, all the bottle.1/2 Price Bottle of Wine / Every Tuesday with your...


  • Fitness Walks

    06/10/2015
    08:30am — 09:30am

    Turn off the treadmill and forget the gym! Start your day with an invigorating hour-long hike thr...


  • Mt. Cuba Center Plein Air Workshop

    06/10/2015
    09:30am — 03:30pm

    Appreciate the intricacies of painting outdoors as you interpret the beauty of Mt. Cuba Center's ...


  • Gentle Yoga

    06/10/2015
    05:00pm — 06:00pm

    Reduce the aches and pains of age by increasing your range of motion through the practice of yoga...


  • Hatha Yoga

    06/10/2015
    06:30pm — 07:30pm

    This series of vigorous exercises is designed to strengthen the body and increase flexibility whi...


  • Mt. Cuba Center Plein Air Workshop

    06/11/2015
    09:30am — 03:30pm

    Appreciate the intricacies of painting outdoors as you interpret the beauty of Mt. Cuba Center's ...


  • Sunday Brunch

    06/11/2015
    11:00am — 02:00pm

    Every Sunday from 11-2PM Continental Buffet, Waffle bar, fresh fruits, Mimosa, Bloody Mary an...


  • Clutterers Anonymous

    06/11/2015
    06:00pm — 07:00pm

    Clutterers Anonymous℠ (CLA℠) is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strengt...


  • Mt. Cuba Center Plein Air Workshop

    06/12/2015
    09:30am — 03:30pm

    Appreciate the intricacies of painting outdoors as you interpret the beauty of Mt. Cuba Center's ...


  • Sunday Brunch

    06/12/2015
    11:00am — 02:00pm

    Every Sunday from 11-2PM Continental Buffet, Waffle bar, fresh fruits, Mimosa, Bloody Mary an...


  • Enjoy a night out with friends at Mt. Cuba Center! Unwind as you sip wine and create garden maste...


  • Indian turnip, eye medicine, war paint - Native Americans depended on plants for food, clothing, ...


  • The Chester Springs Studio wood kiln is a two chamber noborigama, constructed in 2014 during a wo...


  • Sunday Brunch

    06/13/2015
    11:00am — 02:00pm

    Every Sunday from 11-2PM Continental Buffet, Waffle bar, fresh fruits, Mimosa, Bloody Mary an...


  • The Chester Springs Studio wood kiln is a two chamber noborigama, constructed in 2014 during a wo...


  • Half the Money, all the bottle. Every Tuesday

    06/14/2015
    11:00am — 09:00pm

    EVERY TUESDAY ‎Half the money, all the bottle.1/2 Price Bottle of Wine / Every Tuesday with your...


  • Taste Kennett Food Tours

    06/14/2015
    01:00pm — 04:00pm

    Taste Kennett Food Tours, creators of memorable, unique and fun food experiences, offer three-hou...


  • Taste Kennett Food Tours

    06/14/2015
    01:00pm — 04:00pm

    Taste Kennett Food Tours, creators of memorable, unique and fun food experiences, offer three-hou...


  • Tropical Fun Night in Penn Park

    06/14/2015
    06:00pm — 08:00pm

    Penn Township Board of Supervisors are holding their first park event of the year! Sunday, June...


  • Half the Money, all the bottle. Every Tuesday

    06/15/2015
    11:00am — 09:00pm

    EVERY TUESDAY ‎Half the money, all the bottle.1/2 Price Bottle of Wine / Every Tuesday with your...


  • Monday's are Whiskey nights at Minihane's

    06/15/2015
    05:00pm — 11:00pm

    Whisky is not the same as Whiskey! There is some debate about whether or not Scottish distill...


  • Debtors Anonymous

    06/15/2015
    06:00pm — 07:00pm

    In D.A., our purpose is threefold: to stop incurring unsecured debt, to share our experience wit...


  • Half the Money, all the bottle. Every Tuesday

    06/16/2015
    11:00am — 09:00pm

    EVERY TUESDAY ‎Half the money, all the bottle.1/2 Price Bottle of Wine / Every Tuesday with your...


  • Fitness Walks

    06/17/2015
    08:30am — 09:30am

    Turn off the treadmill and forget the gym! Start your day with an invigorating hour-long hike thr...


  • Native Plants of Summer

    06/17/2015
    09:30am — 11:30am

    When the exuberant spring wildflower display is over, summer challenges us to find eye-catching p...


  • Top 10 Wildflowers

    06/17/2015
    10:30am — 11:30am

    Save time and money by using plants that grow back every year. Instead of buying petunias, marigo...


  • Gentle Yoga

    06/17/2015
    05:00pm — 06:00pm

    Reduce the aches and pains of age by increasing your range of motion through the practice of yoga...


  • Hatha Yoga

    06/17/2015
    06:30pm — 07:30pm

    This series of vigorous exercises is designed to strengthen the body and increase flexibility whi...


  • Sunday Brunch

    06/18/2015
    11:00am — 02:00pm

    Every Sunday from 11-2PM Continental Buffet, Waffle bar, fresh fruits, Mimosa, Bloody Mary an...


  • Clutterers Anonymous

    06/18/2015
    06:00pm — 07:00pm

    Clutterers Anonymous℠ (CLA℠) is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strengt...


  • Chester County Balloon Festival

    06/19/2015
    09:00am — 09:00pm

    9th Annual Chester County Balloon Festival New Garden Flying Field June 19th, 20th, 21st 2015 ...


  • Sunday Brunch

    06/19/2015
    11:00am — 02:00pm

    Every Sunday from 11-2PM Continental Buffet, Waffle bar, fresh fruits, Mimosa, Bloody Mary an...


Chester County High School Sports