It seems that every week there is a new report that reveals shortcomings in the work of the federal government.
This past week, for example, a report from the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General found that the department has been routinely erring in reporting on "terror-related" prosecutions and other court matters. Sometimes, the report concluded, the numbers overstated what had actually occurred; sometimes, they understated it. In far too many cases, the numbers did not reflect reality.
The past week also saw a health and safety report issued by auditors in the Department of the Interior. The report summarized the results of a physical audit of Interior’s main building in the District of Columbia, and outlined a number of significant health, safety and environmental hazards that the department had allowed to develop in the very building where thousands of its employees work each day.
One good thing about these two reports is that they were issued by offices within the very departments that the reports criticized, following long and detailed investigative work by those offices. Internal reviews of this nature, when honest and tough, are essential to the effective functioning of any organization.
And another good thing about the reports is they are leading to corrective actions within the Justice and Interior Departments, both to remove the problems uncovered by the reports and to determine why the problems were able to develop in the first place.
The bad thing about the two reports is what I call their "Katrina factor" – like the government’s response to Katrina, operations at Justice and Interior have fallen short of the mark and, as a result, tend to bring into question the basic competency of the federal government.
I don’t want to make too much of these two relative small investigative reports. However, I worry that reports like these, and the underlying realities they uncover, can cause people to question whether government is truly capable of undertaking the extraordinarily difficult responsibilities we assign to it, and achieving the very lofty goals we set for it. And I worry that this questioning, in turn, can lead people to no longer view government as a source of progress and good.
For over 18 months now, Katrina has caused tens of millions of Americans to lose faith in government. It’s essential that government reverse this trend – a task that can be achieved only by levels of performance that are consistently characterized by highest quality of work, a deep caring for people, and an unquestioned integrity.