The Need for Government Reform

Preparing State and Local Government for the Next Crisis

This is the first of a series on reconstructing American government. The author, Bob Melville, is the founder of Civic Way, a nonprofit dedicated to good government, and a management consultant with over 45 years of experience improving governmental agencies across the U.S.


As Congress debated another COVID-19 stimulus package, Senator McConnell shared his skepticism about government aid, arguing that we should allow states (especially those with distressed pension funds) to go bankrupt. Setting aside the dubious legality (states cannot declare bankruptcy under federal law), unintended irony (his home state of Kentucky has one of the worst pension funding ratios) and breathtaking cynicism of the remark, McConnell may have a point.

Federal bankruptcy law, when it works, provides a practical recovery path for corporations willing (and able) to make tough decisions. Theoretically, if states could make similar decisions, their leaders might explore transformational—and once unthinkable—changes. Faced with the prospects of fiscal insolvency and organizational paralysis, which this crisis portends, many states might be open to mergers, multi-state compacts and other ideas that were once politically lethal.

When we emerge from the Covid-19 crisis, our government will be severely, if not irrevocably, weakened at all levels. The public institutions that have served us since the earliest days of the Republic—our states, counties and municipalities—will be exposed as relics, facing insolvency and extermination. Many simply will not survive without permanent structural change. Even if they survive, they will be ill-suited for the challenges ahead. We can talk wistfully about being in this together, but we won’t get out of this together without better government.

The Lessons of the Covid-19 Crisis

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed many of our nation’s most acute systemic vulnerabilities (e.g., socio-economic inequities, public health system flaws and archaic government structures). Some weaknesses may have accelerated the pandemic’s spread, others may have inhibited our ability to manage the pandemic and some may have done both. Here are just some of those vulnerabilities:

  • Economic – narrow corporate duties (and indifference toward long-term consequences), curtailed manufacturing capabilities, under-capitalized small businesses, struggling (and largely voiceless) workers, glaring wealth inequities, declining mobility and waning opportunity
  • Education – property-based school funding, unequal K-12 public education capabilities, wide educational achievement gaps and an increasingly unaffordable and disconnected higher education system
  • Community – a frayed social safety net, a growing homelessness problem, a corroded justice system, more one-parent families, a wide income-based marriage gap and fragile communities
  • Health – growing wealth, racial and health gaps, stagnant life spans (compared to other nations), daunting environmental challenges, tattered public health programs, destructive lifestyles, unreliable health care access and costly, complicated health care systems
  • Infrastructure – deteriorating infrastructure, inadequate capital investments, escalating repair costs and profound rural-urban and poor-wealthy infrastructure divides (e.g., broadband)

We can debate the relative significance of these factors, but there is little doubt about the inadequacies of our federal, state and local governments. Some public officials, including governors and mayors of both parties, have shown admirable leadership during this crisis. But, even the best leaders have had to work around the inherent obstacles of our governmental systems.

Our President’s performance has confused and endangered, but it also  has highlighted the flaws of those systems. The pandemic has laid bare the inadequacy of our mishmash of 50 states and 90,000 local governments. It is too slow and divided to respond to today’s challenges. More importantly, it lacks the agility and capacity to manage, let alone prevent, future crises.

Preparing for the Next Crisis

The Covid-19 pandemic will not be the last existential crisis we face. The world is fraught with risks, some looming just around the corner, like extreme weather events, and some more distant, like climate change. Francis Fukuyama recently wrote that those nations best navigating the coronavirus pandemic, like Germany, are those with governments that enjoy broad public trust. In that vein, to prepare for the next crisis, the US will need a network of federal, state and local governments far more effective and trustworthy than what we have today.

In The Fifth Risk, Michael Lewis wrote that the paramount responsibility of the federal government and, more specifically, the Presidency, is to protect Americans from future risk or to help them recover. Many risks are foreseeable, such as military attacks, nuclear accidents, energy grid attacks, computer viruses and pandemics. Others are unimaginable. Lewis estimates that 70 percent of federal duties involve keeping the American people safe. Unfairly or not, watching the federal government’s response to this pandemic has left most of us shaken, with serious doubts about its ability to manage future risks.

As it turns out, our misgivings may be merited. During the last three years, according to Lewis and other credible sources, the Trump administration has systematically weakened our federal risk management capabilities. It eliminated offices like the National Security Council’s Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense. It terminated funding for initiatives like Predict, a United States Agency for International Development program for studying viruses and preventing pandemics. And, perhaps even less forgivable, it filled many critical risk management jobs with unqualified political loyalists.

During this crisis, the President has talked, yet refused to lead. Instead of verifiable facts, he has offered reckless conjecture. Instead of accepting responsibility, he has blamed others. Instead of proposing fact-based strategies for protecting our health and restoring our economy, he has been a veritable nozzle of half-baked theories and impulsive tweets. While many governors and mayors have tried to fill the void, the President’s failures have glaringly revealed the structural weaknesses of Federalism and the inherent inertia of our byzantine system of state and local government.

History offers hope. Our nation has faced dark times—the Civic War, Great Depression and World War II.  Our nation emerged from those crises better prepared for the future, not by merely surviving, but by being far-sighted and opportunistic. From the Civic War, came laws that opened the West, spawned state colleges and financed the transcontinental railroad. From the Great Depression, came enduring economic reforms like stock market controls, federal deposit insurance and Social Security. From World War II, came the GI Bill, Marshall Plan and United Nations. This crisis can be our opportunity to build anew.

Imperatives for Governmental Renewal

There are, and will likely be, many well-intentioned proposals concerning where we go from here. Some will urge economic reforms to address inequities that leave too many vulnerable and corporate policies that value short-term profits at the expense of future, social and labor issues. Some will advocate educational investments and reforms (e.g., childcare, K-12, workforce development and higher education). Others will call for rebuilding our communities through voting process, judicial system and social safety net changes. And the loudest pleas may be for rebuilding our public health system and making health care more accessible and affordable.

All of these issues demand attention, but our Republic will not survive—let alone return to “greatness”—without agile, vigorous and trustworthy government. Regrettably, given the imminent financial tidal wave threatening our states and localities, good government will be elusive without fundamental change. Our government cannot survive as is, let alone be there for us when the next crisis comes. And this pandemic must be seen for what it is, a cruel dress rehearsal for the next crisis, such as a second Covid-19 wave, another pandemic, an economic collapse, a global war, a nuclear accident or a natural disaster.

Fortunately, there is much that we can do to reform our federal, state and local governments for the daunting challenges that lie ahead. First, we must replace weak, ineffectual and cynical elected officials wherever we can, starting this year. But, electing functioning adults as public executives will not, in and of itself, be enough. We also must rebuild our government. In the coming weeks, we will offer a series of big, specific ideas for restoring public confidence in government—federal, state and local—in accord with the following broad themes:

  • Redesign – modernize structures for managing risk, facing future challenges around metro regions and empowering local governments to collaborate regionally and do more with less
  • Inspire attract the next generation of talent to public service, build a robust, energetic government workforce and dramatically expand national, state and local volunteer service programs
  • Innovate – increase government planning capabilities, adopt modern management practices and upgrade antiquated public sector technologies and security controls
  • Rebuild – reorganize public debt and asset management mechanisms and expand investments in critical infrastructure upgrades (e.g., energy, water, transportation and broadband)
  • Restore – galvanize informed citizen engagement (e.g., streamline voter registration and increase voting convenience) and strengthen government stewardship and accountability

Government alone, no matter how responsive, cannot solve every social ill, but reformed government, working closely with the private, nonprofit and academic sectors can dramatically improve our prospects for success. And this tragedy has made real change possible. As Milton Friedman once wrote, “Only a crisis produces real change” because that is when “the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”

Closing Remarks

A generation of small government advocates often invoked Ronald Reagan’s slogan that “government is not the solution but the problem” and repeated his joke about “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” But, during this crisis, we should mark what we aren’t hearing from most political leaders, statements like “This is a global crisis and you’re on your own.” It also is instructive to remember what Ronald Reagan said in his first inaugural address, “It’s not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work.”