Blueprints to streamline and improve domestic governance

Side profile of a person speaking into a microphone with an American flag in the background.
Editor's note:

This brief introduces the Governance section of the Brookings Blueprints for American Renewal & Prosperity project.

Blueprints for American Renewal & Prosperity

Ideas that address the future of our government institutions generally fall into two categories. Some look at the large government we already have and propose ways that it can work better. Others identify problems that require new government organizations. In the Governance installment of the Brookings Blueprints for Americans Renewal & Prosperity project, scholars offer innovative ideas to streamline and improve U.S. governance that encompass both of those approaches.

My own essay and essays by Molly Reynolds, Mary Jean Ryan and Alan Berube, and Carol Graham take the first approach; each piece deals with the government we have and suggests improvements to the way it functions. For instance, my essay describes the need for a more agile government, especially given the likelihood of more and more crises as a result of things like climate change. I suggest that the domestic side of the government adopt long-standing practices from the military—such as scenario planning, surge capacity, dual-use technology, and leadership experience—to react to unpredictable disruptions more quickly and effectively.

Molly Reynolds writes about the importance of strengthening the internal capacity of Congress, which in recent years has been decreasing. She argues that:

“Skilled, diverse, and well-resourced staff members are key to ensuring legislators accomplish as much as they possibly can. In short, improving Congress’s internal capacity is a necessary, but not necessarily sufficient, condition for equipping the legislature to address the policy problems facing the nation.”

Additionally, Reynolds reflects on the importance of protecting the Capitol complex and its staff in light of both the Jan. 6 insurrection and the COVID-19 pandemic. Ensuring the physical and mental health of members, their teams, and Capitol workers is paramount to the success of America’s legislature.

While these two essays deal with institutional capacity, other essays in this installment of Brookings’s Blueprints deal with the need for flexibility and cooperation across agencies. Mary Jean Ryan and Alan Berube argue for a more comprehensive approach to the problem of the “highly variable experience of U.S. metropolitan areas,” which has left some areas of America well behind others. As the United States recovers from the coronavirus-fueled recession, certain areas will need special attention. Therefore, they advocate for the creation of “a new, time-limited federal interagency process to invest, partner, and coordinate federal action as requested by local cross-sector, interjurisdictional coordinating councils.”

In a similar vein, Carol Graham addresses the crisis of despair in America that is associated with a variety of social problems, including premature death. The pandemic has only worsened these issues. And while the crisis of despair isn’t necessarily a traditional policy problem, Graham argues that, if left unaddressed, “it will jeopardize our labor markets, productivity, and the much needed post-COVID recovery; shorten our life spans; exacerbate social and health problems; and poison our politics.” To move forward, Graham proposes that the federal government create a coordinating body “that connects those dealing directly with deaths of despair with those that are trying to deal with some of the root causes of the despair—including the decline of blue-collar jobs and the communities that used to support them.”

The final two essays in this Brookings’s Blueprints installment take the second approach I discussed above, seeking to improve government’s ability to deal with issues that are new to government. Darrell West proposes reviving the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), which was disbanded by then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich in the 1990s as he sought to shrink the government. This was, writes West, “stunningly poor timing on the part of Gingrich and his fellow legislators at a crucial point in the digital revolution.” Today, legislators must make policy decisions around data privacy, artificial intelligence, internet governance, and many other complex issues that undergo rapid change. A revitalized OTA could offer guidance on a range of tech policy issues, allowing Congress to properly assess and make policy around powerful new innovations.

In the same vein, Tom Wheeler concludes that the government, as configured, is simply not up to the task of dealing with the myriad problems appearing in the digital economy—particularly around Big Tech. “From the assault on personal privacy, to the flood of misinformation, to the crushing of innovative competition, and more, the dominant digital companies have had it their way,” Wheeler writes. To foster more effective oversight of these internet giants, he argues for the creation of a nimble federal agency focused on these issues—one that would revitalize the public interest in digital policy.

Whether promoting changes to the way the current government operates or promoting new governmental organizations, these essays point to a path forward for better government.