Peter H. Schuck is the Simeon E. Baldwin Professor of Law Emeritus at Yale University and author of Why Government Fails So Often: And How It Can Do Better. In this interview, Schuck discusses some of the flaws of the federal system and offers advice on how to improve the operations of government.
I am a guest writer for On Leadership, and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and the head of the organization's Center for Government Leadership. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Q. What do you consider to be the systemic problems of the federal government?
A. One of the themes is the pervasive congressional influence over administration. There is a three-way free for all for influence over the bureaucracy -- by the White House, by Congress and by outside interest groups. Another theme is legalism. Our public service is highly legalistic in its proliferation of rules. Some of that is good and inevitable, but some of it is pathological, animated by incentives for the bureaucrats to protect themselves and to conceal their discretion, so they can say, "I had to do this because the rule required me to."
A third theme is uncertain leadership. The average tenure of political appointees is about two and a half years, and of course that's a recipe for instability, for weak leadership and for a lack of direction.
Q. What other issues have you identified?
A. Layering has become very extreme in the public service. During the last 40 or 50 years, the number of layers or ranks by title in the average Cabinet-level agency jumped from seven to 18. It's an effort to gain political control of the bureaucracy, but it also has the effect of distancing the civil servants from the policymakers, isolating them from the policy decisions that they are going to implement. This layering is almost comical in the proliferation of titles.
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