New Legislation Reflects Distrust of Federal Bureaucracy

The Senate passed the Program Management Improvement and Accountability Act which the author says appears to indicate a lack of trust in the federal government.

Before recessing for the Thanksgiving holiday, the Senate passed the Program Management Improvement and Accountability Act. Similar legislation is already being considered in the House to require the establishment of program management standards in all federal agencies that will create more standardization and accountability for federal programs.

Explaining why Congress wants this extra layer of bureaucracy, Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) said: “These commonsense reforms ensure that taxpayer dollars are safeguarded by increasing accountability throughout the federal government.”

What explains this distrust? A just-released national survey by the Pew Research Center reports that “currently, just 19% say they can trust the government always or most of the time, among the lowest levels in the past half-century. Only 20% would describe government programs as being well-run.”

Of course, the survey reflects opinions, not facts, but then federal agencies can be their own worst enemy. The latest example is a report aired on an Atlanta television station two days before Thanksgiving.

Using FOIA, a local reporter for WXIA-TV found that the Regional Administrator for the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, which oversees the food stamp program, spent more than $22,000 on redecorating his office, conference room, and reception area while charging the government more than $85,000 in travel expenses between January 2014 and September 2015. The report also questioned the $8,600 spent by R.A. Robin Bailey to attend a four-day workshop on “strategic persuasion.”

Whether the purchases, travel, and training were justified, as the USDA contends, or not, the televised story creates the perception that the federal government is wasteful and indifferent to poorer citizens during the start of the holiday season.

The story got better for the television station, and worse for the agency, when a television camera crew tried to film the regional office’s public areas, only to be barred by an employee. Of course, the confrontation was caught on camera, resulting in a classic example on how not to handle the media.

Adding credence to the reporter’s story, a week after the television station started inquiries about these expenses, FNS Administrator Audrey Rowe rescinded plans to promote Robin Bailey to the position of Associate Administrator and Chief Operating Officer at FNS headquarters in Washington, D.C., and decided to keep Mr. Bailey in Atlanta.

In these situations, perception becomes reality. Simply from a public relations point of view, the Southeast office of FNS showed a tin ear. Not having a clear explanation for how it handles its budget, failing to respond to a reporter’s questions, blocking access to public areas, and becoming confrontational while being filmed damaged the agency’s credibility, which in turn, damages the credibility all federal employees.

As evidenced by the Pew survey, there is already a sizeable portion of the public who distrust government. Knowing these low levels of trust just encourages the media to search out stories that confirm their audiences’ prejudices, so the distrust and the media stories become a downward spiral that feeds on each other.

It is easy for citizens to justify those feelings and apply them to the whole government when federal workers fail to treat the media with respect and forget that the public sector is truly public. And it is easy to understand why Congress feels it must now legislate management standards.

About the Author

Michael Wald is a public affairs consultant and writer based in the Atlanta area. He specializes in topics related to government and labor issues. Prior to his retirement from the U.S. Department of Labor, he served as the agency’s Southeast Regional Director of Public Affairs and Southeast Regional Economist.