Howard's Daily: The Cave of Federal Bureaucracy

03/25/2014 10:28 am ET | Updated May 25, 2014

In Plato's Republic, Socrates tells an allegory in which people imprisoned in a cave see only the flickering shadows of objects, animals, and humans reflected on cave walls. This is their reality. When one prisoner is released, and forced into the daylight of reality, his first instinct is to retreat back into the safety of the cave and its two-dimensional image of reality. When he then accepts the truth and returns to enlighten the other prisoners, they are threatened by the idea that reality is different than the flickering images, and won't accept the truth.

Federal bureaucracy is a cave. Its reality consists of flickering images of decades of accumulated rules, often with no line of sight to a real world goal. Those rules require public employees to act in ways that are nonsensical -- say, delaying vital infrastructure to study issues that have no conceivable bearing on the project. Rules sometimes trump morality. But rules are the only reality for those within the cave. Secluded in the darkness of federal bureaucracy, that's all they see.

This metaphor, it turns out, happens to be a literal description of part of federal bureaucracy. An amazing report by David Fahrenthold in the Washington Post, "Sinkhole of bureaucracy," describes a huge cave in Pennsylvania, over 200 feet underground, in which 600 federal employees process retirement pensions of federal employees. In a world where computerized personnel systems are readily available to small businesses, all these government files are processed on paper, by hand. "The employees here pass thousands of case files from cavern to cavern and then key in retirees' personal data, one line at a time," writes Fahrenthold. "They work underground not for secrecy but for space." The cave contains over 28,000 five-drawer file cabinets.

There have been sporadic efforts to automate the federal retirement system over the past 30 years, but all have failed. The last failed effort cost over $100 million.  

Why can't government fix itself? The Washington Post report targets two possible villains. The first is ineptitude -- over 40 percent of IT procurement projects end in total failure. The botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act, by the way, falls into the 60% of partially successful projects. The second villain is the accumulation of twisted legal vines, as one interviewee put it, caused by "one hundred years of bad laws." The pension rules are so complex, with so many exceptions, that all efforts to systemize them end up blowing fuses.      

What's the moral here? Government can't be repaired unless the legal framework is radically simplified, as I argue in my new book (The Rule of Nobody) (April). Legal accretion guarantees failure. Imagine if you had to manage a business by following every rule or procedure that any prior manager had ever put in place.

Like the prisoners in Socrates's cave, federal officials accept existing law as a state of nature. They do whatever the flickering complexities tell them to do, whether or not they are sensible. The subculture within the cave is devoted to maintaining the status quo -- for example, public employee unions view their job as preserving the myriad perks. As in Socrates's parable, everyone fears change. 

Solving the problem is not hard, at least not if you have freedom to invent a rational system. Paying pensions to retirees, after all, is not rocket science. What's needed is to walk out of the cave and face our public challenges anew. It's hard to find a government program that doesn't need a fresh makeover. But, as failed efforts to automate pensions show, this is not a simple repair job. We must confront the magnitude of rebuilding the underlying legal structure. Almost nothing about government can get fixed without first leaving the dark bureaucratic cave, and then reconstructing law so that officials are able to meet the challenges of our new century.

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