The Homeland Security News Wire report that “U.K. Security Services missed several opportunities to stop Manchester suicide bomber” is eerily reminiscent of the failure of the FBI in the U.S. to respond to opportunities to stop the 9/11 attackers. Readers may remember that before the 9/11 attacks, FBI agent Colleen Rowley warned that Zacarias Moussaoui might be a terror suspect, but the report went unheeded and the September 11 attack killed over 3,000 Americans. These recurring problems indicate that these security agencies are not optimally structured to respond to security warnings.
Current appointment and hiring practices for government agencies, including security services, is an important reason that agencies’ priorities are misplaced, and not adequately responsive to citizen concerns.
Administrative Agencies tend to focus on the boss
One of the most serious dangers of any administrative agency, or governments in general, is the top-down nature of political institutions. Employees of agencies are interested in getting a paycheck, not in rocking the boat. Most people seek to please their boss rather than sound an alarm. This becomes doubly true in agencies headed by political appointees, where following the wishes or ideology of the political party becomes more important than pursuing truth or the public good. In the Rowley case the mid-level FBI bureaucrats in Washington were more focused on passing down the wishes of the FBI leadership than passing up information from the field. I wrote about this problem in June 2015 in an article “A Government Shielded from the People.” How can government security agencies become more responsive and not overlook such serious warnings?
Businesses, by Nature, are More Responsive to Customers than Governments
Employees of businesses loose their jobs when businesses fail to provide a desired product to sell. The market is a mechanism of feedback from those the business is intended to serve that automatically corrects oversights and blind spots through lower sales. Democratic governments tend to be shielded from similar pressures because taxes that support them are extracted through force of law, not by the voluntary purchase of a customer. Thus, consumers of government services are at a disadvantage to consumers of competitive business services that are market-driven and voluntary. Governments can operate very unresponsively and inefficiently based on administrative goals; they operate as monopolies that can set prices for their own advantage and not worry about what the customer would prefer.
Security Agencies are Further Shielded by Classified Data
In addition to suffering the lack of market responsiveness of other government agencies, security agencies further shield themselves from public accountability through the mis-classification of data. Analyysis of declassified It has been estimated that 90 percent of classified documents are used to shield bureaucrats from bad decisions or mis-spent money, rather than genuine security needs. In 1966, the U.S. Congress passed the Freedom of Information Act (FIOA), causing more documents to get classified to keep them away from prying eyes. Even under the Clinton administration’s openness policy, during which over 200 million pages of previous administration documents were declassified in 1997 alone, the Clinton administration increased its own number classified documents. Then one-month after 9/11, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a memo saying agencies should be careful in releasing information under FOIA, and that he would defend their decisions to withhold information.(1)
Security agencies have a legitimate need to classify information, and there is a good reason that “leakers” of information that could harm people should be severely punished, but checks and balances on what gets classified, are woefully inadequate today. A good share of classified documents–as has been revealed by Wikileaks and other news sources, are to cover-up corruption and poor performance, where public officials are using the classification process to shield themselves from the scrutiny of those they are supposed to serve.
Moral Injunctions are Inadequate and Structural Reforms are Necessary
Many religious leaders and idealists have taught that responsible leaders are persons of moral integrity. While having individual of moral integrity in positions of public responsibility is important for a good society, it is not adequate. The U.S. Founders were realists, well aware of the need for checks and balances on power, and for systems of governance the punished corruption and put citizens above bureaucrats. We have recently witnessed this dilemma in police departments, where police departments and Army field commanders dare to declare that, despite the commitment to protect and serve others, a life of an officer or serviceman is treated as more valuable than others. Structural reforms, related to jobs, mission, and funding are required to complement moral and religious injunctions to love and serve others before oneself.
Political Appointments Promote Cronyism
Political appointments are often a poor method of selecting department heads and employees. There is frequently a conflict of interest. They promote cronyism, and cronyism is not responsive to the public. Cronyism in government is similar to the nature of cartels in business. President Trump recently made a distinction between being loyal to a department head, or the president, and being loyal to the American people.A partisan president, or a department head, will only be loyal to a fraction of the country–those who vote for him and those who contribute to his campaign. The distinction is frequently made between a “politician” and a “statesman” to distinguish whether a leader is beholden to political interests or puts the country and all its citizens first.
Recent Supreme Court nominations have revealed the weaknesses of partisan Court appointments, to the point where the Supreme Court is often divided between partisan interests not over competition to decide the most accurate interpretation of the Constitution or interest of the whole society. The goal of a government agency, like the goal of the Supreme Court, should be to effectively carry out its mission. This does not happen with partisan appointments. Therefore, I suggested that a superior method must be found to appoint (1) a person qualified for the job, (2) a person who will not put party first, (3) and a person who will not use the position for personal profit.
Super-majority and Lottery Appointments
People should not expect appointments by a president or a 51% majority of legislators (the “nuclear option”) to produce a non-partisan official. A super-majority of, say 80% of a legislative body, would be an indication that the appointment was non-partisan, but most Democratically-elected legislatures are unable to produce super majorities when they are divided by bitter partisanship. There is a danger that requiring such a majority would end up leaving an office vacant unless the legislative body itself was depoliticized. Therefore, there needs to be another method of appointment, or at least a fallback position if achieving a super-majority fails.
As I recommended for Supreme Court appointments, a lottery among qualified candidates selected by an alternative body could help eliminate conflicts of interest and improve structures of governance. A failure produce a political appointee with a super-majority of a legislative body in a timely manner, could bump the appointment to a fallback position, for example from a lottery among qualified candidates proposed by state legislatures.
Financial Rewards and Public Labor Unions
Businesses are rewarded financially for serving customers well–they get more sales and make more money. Current government jobs are based on salaries for doing a specified job. There are typical pay raises for time of service that reward loyalty to the institution or agency. These are the type of self-serving pay raises advocated by labor unions defending the interest of the employee. Such pay mechanisms are blind to employee service to the needs of the public. As late as 1935, Franklin Roosevelt called public labor unions unthinkable and intolerable, even though citizens on the right considered Roosevelt to be a socialist. Roosevelt knew that government labor unions would serve the interests of workers, and not the interests of society. Public “servants” are, by definition, people who put the interests of society ahead of themselves, and labor unions contradict this principle–making people their servants, rather than public workers being servants of the people. And, workers who just punch a time clock until they reach their retirement tend not to be as responsive to citizen needs as to the wishes of their employer.
Of course, people who do a good job in the government sector should be paid for it, or the most talented people will find a job in the private sector or run their own business. The question is how to structure pay in a way that rewards serving the public more than serving the department head. Some agencies, and some private businesses do better than others in providing the right incentives. Even some unions are better at supporting the mission of their professionals rather than mere self-interest. But human nature, when unchecked, seeks more personal comfort, nicer offices, more assistants, and bigger paychecks before anything else. Security personnel have the same human nature as other people.
The effectiveness of government agencies is hampered by current political appointment mechanisms that favor top-down loyalty and partisanship over qualification for the job and responsiveness to the mission. The effectiveness of employees is hampered by labor unions and employment practices that value seniority over merit. As long as these practices continue, agencies like the U.K. Security Services and the FBI are likely to continue to be fairly ineffective in identifying potential terror suspects because employees are more likely to pay attention the political agendas of their leadership than the concerns of citizens they are supposed to support.
(1) “Transparency” is a core principle of a good governance, see Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, Version 4.0, Chapter 5 “Transparency,” esp. pp. 127-129.