It is one little matter within the gargantuan monstrosity we call the federal bureaucracy but the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has a critical role in how the government works — and, as one of its past directors, it remains close to my heart.
OPM is most known today for having its records pilfered by mysterious Chinese sources. It has now finally come to the aid of those whose personnel files were hacked.
Letters have been sent to millions of employees going back decades to advise them their records are among those stolen, not just their personnel files but the much more sensitive and gossipy background investigations.
Now we are advised that the records include spouse and co-habitant statements.
Imagine the split-ups these dirty-laundry secrets could inspire!
The poached records include “Social Security number, address, date and place of birth, residency, educational and employment history, personal foreign travel history, information about immediate family as well as business and personal acquaintances, and other information used to conduct and adjudicate your background investigation.”
The “other information” is worrying but it is already enough so that any neighbor or associate’s casual or spiteful statement could ruin one’s reputation forever.
The good news is that the government is offering “you and your dependent children who were under the age of 18 as of July 1, 2015, credit monitoring, identity monitoring, identify theft insurance and identity restoration services for the next three years” provided by a private identify theft service.
Has Congress appropriated for these services to millions of employees and their families?
To become insured, those eligible must access an OPM website and register with their letter’s PIN code, placing them in another data base some foreign government or criminal could hack.
What happens in three years? Well, the Chinese now know how long to wait until they can exploit the employee information.
If this was just one government agency failure, it could be dismissed.
But here comes America’s preeminent public administration expert, Paul C. Light of New York University, with a new study published by the liberal Brookings Institution called "A Cascade of Failures: Why Government Fails and How to Stop It."
Light begins that “Federal failures have become so common that they are less of a shock to the public than an expectation. The question is no longer if government will fail every few months, but where. And the answer is ‘anywhere at all.’”
Based on Pew Research Center data, Light identifies 41 major government failures between 2001-2014, detailing them in all too familiar examples: missing the 9/11 terrorist signals, Hurricane Katrina, 2008 mortgage/financial failure, Gulf oil spill, Abu Ghraib prison abuse, Boston marathon bombing, shuttle Columbia killing of seven, I-35 bridge collapse, Ft. Hood massacre, flu vaccine shortage, Madoff Ponzi scheme, and on and on.
The government failures were split almost equally between inadequate oversight and incompetent operations.
Professor Light attributes the failures generally to the steady aging of the federal government’s infrastructure and workforce; ever-thickening hierarchy; growing dependence on contractors; dwindling funds, staffing, and collateral capacity, such as information technology and accounting systems; increasing frustration with poorly drafted policy; presidential disengagement; and political posturing.
He blames both political parties although he views the Democratic faults mostly of omission while Republicans contributed directly through budget cuts.
The professor is somewhat consoled that most failures were of omission rather than commission, were difficult to predict beforehand, and that some had partial successes too.
But failures they all were, and each had serious consequences too. His Pew list of important news stories found 41 failures over these dozen years and only nine government successes. Unfortunately, the failures are all too apparent and the ways to stop them too obscure.
His solutions are disappointing — better measurement of costs and benefits of policy proposals from Congress, more money, a simpler chain of command, appointments based on competence, and sharpening mission definition.
As he recognizes, all are conventional and largely ignored over the years.
While all of the failures had multiple sources, poor policy definition was the leading cause. Indeed, Light concedes that many policy goals were simply “impossible to deliver.”
As a good progressive writing for a good liberal institution, it is difficult for him to face the fact that the great majority of the national government’s policy goals are too vague and grandiose to deliver.
The national government simply does too much.
As Ronald Reagan kept insisting, the main reason to cut the national government is that with fewer responsibilities it can focus upon a few attainable goals. He called federalism “the secret to America’s success,” proposing to transfer most domestic programs to the states allowing the Federal government to correctly perform what remained.
The Feds might start with keeping sensitive personnel information off hackable government computers.
Donald Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies, the author of "America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition and Constitution," and was Ronald Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during his first term. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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