Real People, Not Regulations, Are the Key to Accountability


To cure the deviant subculture of government, abandon bureaucracy and put humans on the spot.


How government became a deviant subculture is a story of good intentions gone awry. We tried to avoid government abuse by replacing individual responsibility with detailed rules and objective legal proceedings. Never again would officials play favorites or indulge personal prejudices. Government would be an efficient assembly line.

What we achieved instead was what philosopher Hannah Arendt called "the rule of Nobody." Instead of an automated assembly line, government became a bureaucratic jungle, with all the pathologies of a culture without responsibility or accountability: savage politics disconnected from actual accomplishment; hyper-inefficiency; and a universal sense of powerlessness, causing a downward spiral of selfishness and cynicism. "Nothing is impossible," one public employee observed, "until it is sent to a committee."

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The cure is basic: Reconnect public goals to real people. Humans, not tangled bureaucratic proceedings, must have responsibility to make choices -- whether to approve a power line, balance budgets, or maintain order in the classroom. Trust is not necessary. Protect against bad choices with checks and balances: Give some other identifiable official responsibility to approve an important choice. Accountability is key: Tocqueville noted that as long as a democracy retains "the right of taking away the power of the officers whom it had appointed, it has no reason to fear any abuse of their authority." Thus, he concluded, democracy can leave officials "to their own free action instead of prescribing an invariable rule of conduct, which would ... fetter their activity."

A revolution is required. Pruning the jungle is a fool's errand. We must abandon the bureaucratic tangle and replace it with a radically simpler structure in which public goals are linked to individual responsibility.

Restoring human control of government will require at least four radical changes in government's basic operating system:

  1. Restore accountability to public service. Over 20 million people work for government at all levels. That's one in seven American workers. Many are indispensable -- teachers, cops, environmental inspectors, food and drug regulators -- but they work in bureaucratic structures that guarantee maximum ineffectiveness. Their agencies are also unmanageable. Hiring is done through 19th-century civil service protocols, daily assignments are dictated by rigid work rules, and firing public employees is basically impossible.

    End civil service as we know it, including the idea of lifetime careers. Keep neutral hiring (to prevent spoils), but revive the freedom to manage and fire personnel. An independent ombudsman can guard against unfairness. Public employment is supposed to be a merit system, not lifetime guarantee.

  2. Sunset all budgetary programs. Most of the budget is consumed in programs that don't come up for legislative reauthorization. Congress must be forced to make the tough choices needed to set priorities. A constitutional sunset amendment would require Congress to periodically make new findings and adjust programs accordingly. What about entitlements? The idea of permanent entitlements is morally corrupt, an open faucet that no public official can adjust as circumstances change. Special education, for example, has burgeoned beyond any expectation, now consuming over 20 percent of the total K-12 budget. This leaves almost nothing for, say, pre-K education or programs for gifted students. Is that fair? The fee-for-service structure of Medicare is inefficient by at least 30 percent, wasting $150 to $250 billion annually. Just think of how those wasted dollars could be used -- for example, to build an efficient energy grid.

    Every public dollar involves a moral choice. Congress must be forced to face this responsibility.

  3. Regulate by results, not red tape. A crowded society requires government oversight to prevent pollution, avoid abusive workplace practices, and oversee the quality of medical care, among other goals. But regulatory codes are literally incomprehensible -- over 2 billion words of binding law at all levels of government -- and often counterproductive. Why should it take an average of eight years for an infrastructure project to undergo environmental review? Why should doctors, teachers, and factory foremen spend hours each week filling out forms no one reads? Radically simplify regulation so that it sets goals and guiding principles rather than purporting to be an instruction manual for all life activities. Regulation must be understandable. Regulatory disputes should focus on right and wrong, not bureaucratic compliance. Other countries are going in this direction. It's the only way regulation can work sensibly.

  4. Disrupt the political game. Political leaders are seedy salesmen, making unrealistic promises and generally treating the public like idiots. Here's a brilliant idea: Let's stimulate the economy by subsidizing inefficient state and local governments. Or another one: Let's eliminate the EPA altogether. Political rhetoric is untethered from any responsible view of reality.

    Nasty politics is nothing new, but success used to hinge on what political leaders achieved. Politicians today have given up on actually achieving public goals. A confluence of the forces of powerlessness -- overwhelming bureaucratic inertia, a culture of avoiding responsibility, and an addiction to special-interest money -- have transformed politics into a game disconnected from public purpose.

    Here, change for its own sake is what's needed. End the revolving door: Prohibit lobbying for five years after public service. Amend the Constitution to permit limits on campaign spending and contributions. Institute public financing of campaigns -- $10 billion every four years is a bargain compared to the estimated $200 billion or more in annual special-interest giveaways.

A radical makeover of government should be based on one guiding principle: to restore individual responsibility and accountability. Only real people, not rules, make things happen. Government is no different than any other human activity in this regard. Today, the buck never stops. That's why politicians can get away with a lifetime career of pointing fingers. The fact that it will take a revolution to revive America's founding principle of individual responsibility only demonstrates how deviant government has become.

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Philip K. Howard is a lawyer, author and chair of Common Good. He is the author, most recently, of Life Without Lawyers: Restoring Responsibility in America, and wrote the introduction to Al Gore's Common Sense Government. More

Philip K. Howard is the author of Life Without Lawyers(Norton 2009), as well as the best-seller The Death of Common Sense(Random House, 1995) and The Collapse of the Common Good(Ballantine, 2002), and he is a periodic contributor to the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. He advises leaders of both parties on legal and regulatory reform issues, and wrote the introduction to Vice President Al Gore's book Common Sense Government. A practicing lawyer, Howard is a partner in the law firm Covington & Burling LLP. In 2002, Howard founded Common Good (, organized to restore common sense to American public life. The Advisory Board of Common Good is composed of leaders from a broad cross-section of American political thought including, among others, former Senators Howard Baker, Bill Bradley, George McGovern, and Alan Simpson. Howard is a civic leader in New York and is Chair-Emeritus of the Municipal Art Society, a leading civic group that spearheaded initiatives to preserve Grand Central Terminal.
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