Federal Failure and Bureaucratic Layering

June 8, 2016

American businesses have become leaner in recent decades, with fewer layers of management. By contrast, New York University’s Paul Light has found that the number of management layers in federal government agencies has increased substantially.

Light argues that today’s “over-layered chain of command” in the federal government is a major source of failure. Overlaying stifles information flow, slows decisionmaking, and makes it harder to hold people accountable for failures.

The Washington Post looks at a failure in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that will have you shaking your head. Reporter Joe Davidson describes DHS efforts after the December 2 attacks in San Bernardino, California. The acronyms are all bureaus within the DHS.

The day after the attack that left 14 dead and 22 wounded, ICE learned that Enrique Marquez, who authorities say purchased the weapons used by shooters Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, might be at a USCIS office in San Bernardino. The office was protected by private security guards under contract to FPS.


Five HSI agents, decked out in tactical gear, rushed to the office to prevent any further attacks and to detain Marquez and his wife for questioning.


Yet despite the urgency, coming less than 24 hours after the attack, “the FPS guards advised the HSI agents that they had to stay in the lobby until the Field Office Director approved their entry.”


At first, the guards couldn’t find the director because she didn’t answer her phone. Once located, she didn’t want to allow the agents into the building. In true bureaucratic fashion, the field office director said she had to check with her boss, the district director in Los Angeles, who then checked with a higher boss, the regional director in Laguna Niguel, Calif.


The district director instructed the field office director to allow the agents into the building “to determine what they wanted.” Then they waited.


“[T]he agents were confined to the lobby for approximately 15 to 20 minutes,” they told the inspector general’s office. More than enough time for any suspect to get away.


Imagine five cops anxious to take down a terrorist waiting in the lobby for permission to go further into the building before they could search for him.


After the initial wait, “the agents were escorted to a USCIS conference room by FPS guards, where they met with the Field Office Director,” the inspector general’s report said. “According to the HSI agents’ accounts, they waited approximately 10 additional minutes in the conference room before the Field Office Director met with them. The agents told her they were looking for Marquez because he was connected to the shootings and there was concern that he could be in the building.”


The field office director’s response?


[Inspector General John] Roth said “the Field Office Director told the agents they were not allowed to arrest, detain, or interview anyone in the building based on USCIS policy, and that she would need to obtain guidance from her superior before allowing them access.”


The field office director again called the district director who notified the regional director, who notified an associate director in Washington, who met with USCIS lawyers.


Meanwhile, the field office staff determined that neither Marquez nor his wife was at the office.


The agents then asked for information about Marquez from the USCIS file, but the field office director refused. She did provide a photo.


At some point, the associate director determined that the agents could have the file. That information was relayed back down the chain, to the regional director, then to the district director, then to the field office director. More than an hour after arriving, an agent hand-copied information from the file and the law enforcement officers left.

This is how the federal government operates. Why anyone (like current presidential candidates) would want to give this dysfunctional institution more power and control over our lives is beyond me—whether more power over security, health care, housing, education, transportation, trade, or anything else.

Over a vast range of activities, the federal government fails repeatedly for basic structural reasons. The government is a monopoly. It functions through coercion, not voluntary relations. It has a guaranteed source of funds, and thus has little reason to serve the interests of the public. It is controlled by self-interested politicians. It receives no market signals and little feedback to guide its decisionmaking. It is 100 times larger than the average-sized state government, and thus far too large to manage with any decent level of efficiency or quality.

The nation would be better off if the DHS superstructure were abolished and the overall government cut in size.

You can read more about the causes of federal failure hereherehere, and here.


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