05/14/2013 02:42 pm ET Updated Jul 14, 2013

Benghazi and the IRS: Here's One Reason

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Occasionally, a single anecdote can accurately reflect an entire situation.

About a dozen years ago, when I was in graduate school, I took a course in how the government interfaces with our intelligence community. One of the students in the class asked the professor, who had long experience in that community, what happened to someone at the CIA who sat at the China desk and totally screwed up. The response, "We'd probably shift him to something like the Belize desk." Not fired, shifted.

No matter what sort of business you run, your greatest assets are the professionalism and competence of your employees. Government is no different in its needs, but because results, even bad ones, can be argued away, hidden in giant bureaucracies, or simply ignored, there is a lack of accountability for failure, starting from the bottom and working its way up the chain to the top. There's no bottom line to demonstrate success in a straightforward manner.

If you're in a masochistic mood, watch a few Congressional hearings on CSPAN. Regardless of subject, if there's been a bad outcome, someone on a House or Senate panel will ask who had responsibility and who had to pay the penalty. Usually, the same questioner then shrieks the same question because the witness has given no cogent answer, but is, instead, sitting at the witness table with the expression of someone who just emerged from a long coma.

The witness may be military or civilian. It doesn't matter. They all answer questions the same way. In spite of being in government agencies with clear lines of command and decision making, no one ever seems to know who made a decision or who had ultimate responsibility for its implementation.

The problem is two-pronged. First, there's the selection issue. Many of the people who work in government are young, bright, motivated, highly educated people who are dedicated to helping this country make a difference. Quite a few others might be smart and well-educated, but are looking for work or a career and have gotten where they are because they know people, or worked on someone's campaign, or because someone doing the hiring did a lousy job. People in this second group often have no facility for decision making or problem solving, and seem to say the stupidest or most obvious things in meetings. And yet, they survive. The people who hired them feel obliged to protect them, at the very least, to prevent scrutiny of hiring decisions.

Secondly, ask someone in management in the government if someone can be fired. The answer is always, "Of course." This is followed by a lengthy discourse about all the reasons that no one seems to ever get fired. A lot of shifting, but no firing. It takes less paperwork, avoids a possible suit by the employee, and it quiets the hubbub before someone asks the question of who was in charge when the employee flubbed.

Occasionally, in a real stinker of a situation, someone low in the food chain is quickly offered up to cut off a possible investigation. Indeed, the one sacrificed might be completely responsible for causing a disaster that occurred before anyone else noticed, but someone hired that person, and you can bet that it's not the first booboo in the subordinate's jacket.

Some of the best people I know in government have had their careers slowed by blockages that result from plum jobs going to the beneficiaries of nepotism. This results in incompetence being geometrically increased by the same incompetents hiring still more people who won't be likely to show them up. In other situations, lousy managers will trap terrific performers who save their bacon, and not allow them to be promoted away.

For those who think I'm exaggerating, look at one of the most horrifically incompetent efforts in recent years, the attempt to clean up sexual misconduct in the armed forces. Why haven't chiefs of staff been fired? Why haven't service secretaries resigned? How could convictions of rapists be overturned arbitrarily by general officers, as has happened twice recently, with little repercussion? These and other questions could be asked in other forms about Libya, the management of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and so many other situations. Until the day when highly competent civil servants are hired more frequently and are allowed to progress to higher levels of leadership without having to become political; and until military officers are not merely revered, but called to account for their decisions, we will continue to witness those same congresspeople and senators shrieking about accountability.