Introducing the Democracy Dashboard Part II with a focus on institutional functioning

The Brookings Democracy Dashboard is a collection of data designed to help users evaluate political system and governmental performance in the United States. The Democracy Dashboard displays trends in democracy and governance in seven key areas: Elections administration; democratic participation and voting; public opinion; institutional functioning in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches; and media capacity. In January, Brookings rolled out the first three parts of the dashboard.  Now, in June, we are presenting the next four sections, each of which consists of measures designed to track how well our democratic institutions are functioning.  The following measures are available this month:

Executive Branch Capacity: The successful implementation of laws depends entirely upon a well-intentioned, high-functioning presidency and administrative state. This section examines the rulemaking, personnel, and management capacity of the executive branch.

Legislative Branch Capacity: A conscientious, decisive, and prescient congress is the lynchpin of effective governance. This section explores the duties of legislation and oversight, and the current state of partisan politics in Congress.

Judicial Branch Capacity: A capable system of courts is essential to safeguarding fundamental promises between a democratic state and its citizens. This section examines the workload and capacity of the judicial branch.

Media Capacity: Unprecedented media exposure and access make the work of the “Fourth Estate” more important than ever before. This section explores recent shifts in media delivery, and how citizens perceive organizations delivering the news.

Using the Dashboard: The Government Accounting Office’s High Risk List

We hope that the Democracy Dashboard will inspire scholars and other interested writers to think about the health of the government as it is represented in the dashboard.  For instance, let’s delve into the data on the GAO’s High Risk List.

The Government Accounting Office was created in 1921(its name was changed to the Government Accountability Office in 2004).  It was created to help Congress get control over financial chaos and big increases in spending following World War I.  Over the years, its mission expanded to include providing Congress with information on how executive programs were working.  For instance, in 1967, it was asked to evaluate President Johnson’s Great Society programs.  In 1974, it was given greater say in the budget process.  GAO reports can originate from requests from members of Congress, from mandates placed in statutes, or from their own investigation into federal programs.

In particular, the GAO’s focus on management means that it has, over the years, unearthed many of the problems we’ve come to hear about in the executive branch.  For instance, in March 2013, the GAO reported on the serious problems in scheduling and backlogs at the Veteran’s Health Administration.  It stated that the VA could not provide “a plan that met established criteria for sound planning, such as articulating performance measures for each initiative, including their intended impact on the claims backlog.”  The report also documented increases in the average length of time necessary to complete a benefits claim—“from 161 days in fiscal year 2009 to 260 days in fiscal year 2012”—and that the number of “backlogged claims” (those pending for over 125 days) had more than tripled since 2009. But action on this report was far from immediate.  It took another full year, the industrious digging of journalists, and the sad story of a veteran named Barry Coates, whose cancer went undiagnosed, to spur Congress into action.

As is evident, Congress is slow to turn GAO reports into action.  In 1990, the GAO began issuing its “high risk list”—agencies that were facing big problems.  The list was meant to be a diagnostic tool drawing attention to problems in the executive branch.  But a funny thing happened along the way; as the political scientist Don Kettl points out, in the twenty-five years since the creation of GAO, only about two dozen agencies, or one-third of those identified as high risk, have successfully moved off the list.  This means one of two things; either the problems are so intractable that they are endemic to the architecture of the programs or Congress doesn’t pay attention to the fundamentals of management until an agency blows up in its face.

The High Risk List is a well-researched, important diagnostic.  Two issues are worth pondering, however.  The first is why the list does not generate immediate action on the part of Congress or on the part of the White House.  Should the list be action forcing?  The second related issue is that the same agencies seem to stay on the list year after year.  The agency in charge of Medicare and Medicaid has been on the list since its inception! Again, this should prompt immediate action and may indicate that there are structural and legal problems that make efficient management impossible.

The Democracy Dashboard is more than a compilation of statistics.  It should prompt us to ask some hard questions. What should we do about the fact that so many agencies have been deemed high risk for so long is just one such question.