In tone, ‘Why Government fails so often’ feels more accessible for the academic than the general reader (it is long on ‘normative assumptions’ and short on pithy anecdotes) which is a shame as much of the content is useful for practitioners. Despite this it is well worth a read even if many of his American examples cover unfamiliar terrain for the British reader.
But the assumption at the heart of it – that Government fails frequently – is troubling. It reinforces the damaging stereotype of the incompetent public sector and does not stand up to the academic rigour espoused in the rest of the book.
What is Schuck’s evidence for the frequent failure of Government? That the public has lost faith in it. This assertion is supported by a series of opinion polls showing a rapidly declining level of public support for federal government. Shuck gives us five reasons why the public might have reached such a conclusion. These five reasons* are an interesting and fairly rum bunch but in no way definitive. I would add at least two more reasons – first that the public is ill-informed on many of the issues dealt with by Government (for example levels of immigration, crime and teenage pregnancy) and secondly that the public has no means of fairly assessing how well or badly the government performs tasks which are far more complicated that those completed by the private sector. Both these reasons suggest that we should treat public opinion of how well Government is doing with caution rather than use it as a basis for a full scale assault.
Schuck does briefly discuss the successes of Government – in short, that by most measures the United States is one of the most successful countries in the history of the world – but rather than explore and champion these remarkable successes he goes on to focus on the large scale programmes which have not succeeded.
As a British reader I also found it striking that Schuck – a self-professed Democrat – puts the market at the centre of his narrative. ‘Even a relatively well-crafted policy is vulnerable to powerful market forces’, he argues. ‘Policy makers cannot readily bend these forces to their will without introducing new distortions which nimbler more incentivised better-resourced market actors can often exploit to their advantage.’ Similarly in a long section on cost benefit analysis Shuck puts enormous faith in the ability of policy makers to be able to put numerical values on what they plan to do and what they have done: ‘a program should maximise net benefits and also be cost effective’ he advises without really offering any advice on how to do so when the outcomes (a word he rarely uses) are inherently nebulous.
When it comes to answering the second challenge – how Government can do it better – the solutions are vague and, as he acknowledges, difficult to implement. His first proposed remedy is cultural change, his second is constitutional reform, and for his third category he lists a number of aspirational goals. Some of these goals are worth serious consideration – for example requiring policy makers who propose expenditures to identify offsetting reductions in other areas – but I found others less helpful, for example asserting that Government should avoid moral hazard without suggesting how it might do so in practice.
Perhaps the self-acknowledged difficulties in implementing many of these remedy provide the most eloquent answer to the book’s challenge: there are failures in Government because it is just so darn difficult to do well. Unfortunately the title of the book and the thrust of the analysis risk leaving the impression that the Government is wilfully and consistently incompetent and should just buck its ideas up.
*Shuck’s five reasons are:
1. The federal government does in fact perform poorly in a vast range of domestic projects
2. Our legislative process is highly dysfunctional by almost any standard
3. Americans perceive a gap between ‘the democracy of everyday life’ and democracy as practised in Washington
4. Prosperity may have raised public expectations and demands
5. Americans harbour the conceit that we the people are not responsible for the government’s failures, which are instead caused by alien forces in Washington