Deregulatory Drivel


Deregulating the Public Service, edited by John J. Diulio, Washington: The Brookings Institution, 308 pages, $31.95/$12.95 paper

"Can government be improved?" asks the subtitle of this book. "Yes," say the 14 authors, if the government would only implement the standard reform from the public-administration literature: hire "the best and the brightest" and give them the knowledge and authority to do their jobs. Hence, Deregulating the Public Service is about removing restrictions on public servants' authority that presumably prevent them from doing a better job.

As with Al Gore's National Performance Review, the unacknowledged perspective of this book is that of a government manager. Most men and women who serve in public-service positions have a focused perspective on the mission of their agency, are genuinely committed to that mission, and are personally honest and industrious. This outlook leads most government managers and public-administration scholars to conclude that government performance could best be improved by reducing the restrictions on government managers.

Maybe so, but analysts should reflect more seriously on the reasons why most proposals to reduce such regulations are rejected and why the scope and detail of these regulations continue to increase. The beginning of wisdom on these issues is to recognize that most regulations, like most other conditions perceived to be wasteful, are there because someone in authority wants them.

Legislators and elected executives monitor agencies by several criteria, with preferences not just for an agency's primary output but also for how that output is produced. Regulations are the basic means by which politicians implement their various preferences. Government officials, for example, want to distribute employment, contracts, and grants by area, size of business, race, or some other politically meaningful criterion. Personnel rules reflect a preference to avoid the appearance of favoritism, ethics rules to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, transparency rules to avoid the appearance of ex parte deals. While many regulations seem inefficient to government managers (and others) who are most concerned about the primary output of an agency, they may not be wasteful in terms of a broader set of political preferences.

The best way to make a case against such stifling regulations, then, is to provide politicians and the public with information about regulatory costs in terms of increased spending or lower output. Unfortunately, this book, like all too much of the public-administration literature, provides little significant analysis or evidence on that key issue.

Paul Volcker and William Winter, for example, call for "nurturing the pride and competence of men and women willing to devote themselves to careers in public service" by higher pay, fewer political appointments, and less regulation. Gerald Garvey and John DiIulio contribute a thoughtful article on the sources of public-service regulation without making an adequate case that such regulation has been excessive. James Q. Wilson criticizes both the Reinventing Government and the National Performance Review programs for not providing a theory about what government should do and for failing to address the incentives of government managers.

John Burke concludes that government performance would improve if we all trusted government more, a thesis that seems to have gotten the equation precisely backward. Constance Horner and Steven Kelman suggest strategies for reducing personnel and procurement regulation. Richard Nathan makes a case for a strong executive leadership, and Neal Peirce documents the effects of strong leadership in Florida and Philadelphia. Mark Moore and Mark Alan Hughes, respectively, discuss the regulation of police and mass transit.

Melvin Dubnick contributes a thoughtful article on the three major challenges to the classical bureaucratic paradigm: the minimalists (Niskanen et al.), the reinventors (Osborne and Gore), and the deregulators (the authors in this collection). Dubnick concludes that the minimalists have the most sophisticated theory, the reinventors the most popular appeal, and the deregulators the most practical suggestions. Among them, Donald Kettl wins the prize for the most obtuse conclusion: "Reenergizing politics so that it drives the interdependent networks toward a new definition of the public interest is the ultimate key to relegitimizing government."

As the above summary suggests, this is not a very interesting or coherent collection. That is too bad, because several important patterns in public service need to be properly explained. Inefficiency in government is rather like bad weather; everyone talks about it, but no one does anything about it. Almost every federal administration has sponsored an efficiency commission, announced its findings with great fanfare, and then quietly walked away from most of the recommendations.

The Clinton administration has dutifully completed the first two stages of this process, but what will happen next remains unclear. It may be telling, however, that soon after the publication of the National Performance Review, the official responsible for monitoring its enactment was reassigned. The vacancy has not yet been filled. Clinton seems to have decided that he has already made his mark on deficit reduction and efficiency in government.

My vision of purgatory is being forced to read the whole corpus of public-administration literature. Unless you face this same grim prospect and want to get ahead on such a joyless chore, there is little reason to read this book.

William A. Niskanen is chairman of the Cato Institute.