The Public Wants A Smarter, Not Smaller, Government

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John Bridgeland and Peter Orszag made a splash with a recent article in the Atlantic Monthly suggesting that the government should learn to play “moneyball.” The term is derived from the way baseball franchises use big data and clever analysis to find the best players for their money, but in the context of government, this means taking the same approach to finding the best bang for the public’s buck. As Bridgeland and Orszag put it:

Based on our rough calculations, less than $1 out of every $100 of government spending is backed by even the most basic evidence that the money is being spent wisely. As former officials in the administrations of Barack Obama (Peter Orszag) and George W. Bush (John Bridgeland), we were flabbergasted by how blindly the federal government spends. In other types of American enterprise, spending decisions are usually quite sophisticated, and are rapidly becoming more so: baseball’s transformation into “moneyball” is one example. But the federal government—where spending decisions are largely based on good intentions, inertia, hunches, partisan politics, and personal relationships—has missed this wave.

How would the public feel about such an approach? Bridgeland and Orszag are on firm ground here according to a 2010 survey I helped conduct for Doing What Works, the Center for American Progress’s government reform project. According to the survey, there is strong support, especially among the younger generation and minorities but also among independents, moderates, and unlikely constituencies like Republicans and tea party supporters, for a government reform plan organized around three core elements:

1. Eliminating inefficient programs and redirecting support to the most cost-efficient programs

2. Carefully evaluating the performance of individual programs and agencies, and making that information available to the public

3. Using more modern management methods and information technologies

These steps are very similar to the ones recommended by Bridgeland and Orszag in their article. But the survey also contains a note of caution for their approach. They specifically pitch government moneyball as a way to keep government going while continuing budget cutbacks —cutbacks that have already gone too far. But for the public, it is much more about playing smart than downsizing. Clear majorities of Americans want and expect more federal involvement in priority areas such as energy, poverty, and education, the survey found. In essence, they want a federal government that is better, not smaller. That’s why they back improving government’s performance over reducing its size by 62-36.

Indeed, government’s size could actually be fruitfully used to play government moneyball, as Marc Tracy of The New Republic points out in a commentary on the Bridgeland/Orszag article:

The federal government’s advantage is that, if it wants to be, it is bigger than anything else—a bigger buyer, a bigger seller. Government moneyball would mean taking advantage of the government’s size.

Take Obamacare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board, the 15-member “death panel” of experts whose job is to find more efficient ways for Medicare to provide for its members. What will hopefully make IPAB effective isn’t only adopting medical best practices; it is, having identified those best practices, then using Medicare’s status as by far the largest purchaser of medical services in the United States to buy in bulk and make itself cheaper through those best practices… In countless other areas, the government could use its sheer size to drive its own costs down and improve public policy. It could buy more energy-efficient vehicles and buildings, for example, juicing demand and creating competition for cheaper energy-efficient technology while, again, saving its own money by buying at wholesale. And so on.

Very good points. So, sure, let’s play government moneyball. But let’s not use it as an excuse to cut government. That’s not what the public wants and it’s most definitely not the right way to play.