Competence in government will be a significant issue in the November elections. This was already clear before the crisis triggered by the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd. Before the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States in a big way.
Crises of competence are not a new thing. On the eve of the 1980 US election, for example, James L. Sundquist of Brookings published “The Crisis of Competence in Our National Government.” A veteran of politics and public service, Sundquist noted a decline in Americans’ confidence in governmental competence, starting in the mid-1960s.
Sundquist blamed institutional problems and political culture, more than individual leadership failings. He underlined executive-legislative branch tensions. The large number of political appointees in US public administration. And yet, government has functioned competently most of the time since Sundquist penned his article.
Individual leadership counts enormously. The President and heads of government agencies constantly send crucial messages. Priorities. What is valued. How to treat the public. Who occupies key positions. All this makes a difference.
We are not in normal times. The CDC makes the inexcusable error of mingling different COVID test data, leaving us clueless on actual infection rates. A State Department Chief of Protocol’s habit of carrying a whip in the office and intimidating employees gets overlooked by Senate vetters because, unlike most other nominees, his CV shows some relevant job experience. Nominees deemed unqualified by the American Bar Association win approval for lifetime positions on the Federal bench. Institutions may be imperfect, but leadership that insists on competence is key.