Mere mention of the word “oversight” can make a public administrator queasy. It’s not because bureaucracies inevitably have something tawdry or corrupt to hide. Indeed, government agencies often have much to crow about. Keeping the trains moving every day is an achievement, especially as legislatures layer multiple, often-conflicting duties upon those charged with execution.
Administrators and civil servants frequently feel their efforts are little known or appreciated. Which is not a surprise; few notice when government functions smoothly. But lo, when something goes wrong, a white hot light is cast.
The House and Senate hearings on the breach of Office of Personnel Management (OPM) data systems were typical. To be clear, OPM erred. It had been warned that a number of its systems were insecure and did not fix the problem. At least 4 million and possibly as many as 22 million current and former federal employees, contractors and other persons had personal information pilfered. I myself was a victim. Still-unknown malefactors have my Social Security number, address, federal work history and more.
The hearings brought some useful information to light about the hacks. The public benefited from getting an explanation as to when the cyber-attacks began and why OPM delayed notifying affected individuals. But the hearings also featured mega political grandstanding and ugliness.
Katherine Archuleta, OPM’s then director, was pummeled by legislators, who tagged her with the word “failure” repeatedly. She did herself no favors by saying nobody at OPM was to blame for the hacks. In doing so, Archuleta followed the well-trodden path of political appointees by shifting the blame to bad actors and, to a lesser extent, to Congress, for failing to better fund the office.
Members of Congress called for her head and got it. Some critics spoke as if Archuleta and OPM had no other responsibilities beyond data security, which they plainly do. OPM is the federal government’s civil service human resources shop. It has 5,500 employees and an annual budget of more than $240 million. OPM directs government-wide hiring, employment policies and employee benefits programs. OPM’s responsibilities are many, and its successes drew very little comment in the hearings. Indeed, the previous Congress’ hearings on OPM focused heavily on “problems” revealed in media exposes.
Politics long has been part of hearings. One need only recall Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s rants for the television cameras against “communist infiltrators” six decades back. That said, too many oversight hearings today are mostly partisan public-relations spectacles. They aim to perpetuate media narratives in hopes of attracting votes, donors or both. Some good emerges, but these hearings inflict long-term damage and immense distrust between public administrators and legislators. The former feel they are being pulled into a game of “gotcha.” The latter think they are being deceived and fed talking points. Neither side is entirely wrong.
Not long ago, congressional committees conducted oversight of agencies on a fairly predictable annual schedule. Hearings focused less on crises and more on routine operational matters. During the succeeding weeks, committee staff would work collaboratively to produce reports filled with findings of facts and proposed remedies. The media may have been bored to tears, but government was the better for it.
Committees and the agencies they oversaw, developed relationships that were based on trust and mutual interest. An agency head could tell committee leaders about a problem and expect to receive help, rather than face reprisal via a story on the front page of the next morning’s newspaper. Committees could get straight answers from agency personnel rather than spin from appointees and spokespersons.
For certain, there were committees and agencies whose relationships were a bit too cozy. Government wrongdoing and waste got swept under the rug and committee members’ parochial interests often were fed by the very agencies they were supposed to oversee. It was not perfect.
Why hearings morphed from dry procedure to carnivals of opportunism is a complex story. The shifting of control of the Congress has been a major factor. Since 1995, control of Congress has gone from Democrats to Republicans to Democrats to Republicans. As Professor Frances E. Lee wrote:
“The last three decades have seen the longest period of near parity in party competition for control of national institutions since the Civil War…. The permanent campaign and politicians’ continual eye on the next election pervasively discourage efforts to work across party lines.”
This is regrettable, but not irremediable. Congressional leadership could encourage committees to schedule regular oversight hearings that generally focus on agency operations. Committees also could adopt rules requiring more polite treatment of witnesses. (Congress has decorum rules for legislators’ talks on the floor.) Agencies, meanwhile, should start each Congress by meeting frequently with committee staff. Political appointees need to step back and allow agency professional staff to develop trust-based relationships with legislative staff.
Oversight should be a collaborative exercise for the public benefit. Agency officials bring expertise developed from their years of toil in the minutiae of policy implementation. Legislators provide fresh eyes and ideas and democratic accountability to public administration. Oversight really can be a win-win exercise, but that will not happen until elected officials and public servants put in the work to develop trust-based relationships.