More than four years ago Congress approved the Government Performance and Results Act, calling for federal agencies to explain their missions. The answers are in and, amazingly, many of our federal bureaucracies don't even know why they exist!
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, for example, identifies one of its two key missions as "restoring the public trust by achieving and demonstrating competence." Trust it to do what? Demonstrate competence in what? HUD doesn't say.
As the General Accounting Office -- Congress' watchdog arm -- puts it: This definition "does not define the agency's basic purpose or focus on its core programs." No kidding!
The self-proclaimed mission of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is to promote "prosperity and democracy, and ... national security." We thought that was the work of the departments of Commerce, State and Defense. And what about the Corps management (or mismanagement) of dams and lakes?
Most Americans probably think the Small Business Administration exists to loan money to small businesses. They'd be wrong. The SBA exists, according to its mission statement, to enhance the "quality of family life for SBA employees..." There's a perverse honesty in that statement.
As critics often point out, bureaucracies have no interest in solving the problems they were created to deal with -- that would put them out of business. Their No. 1 priority is to expand their authority, hire more people and, as the SBA says, enhance their employees quality of life.
Several other agencies don't exactly misidentify their missions, but instead cite fuzzy-minded "feel good" objectives. In this category is the National Park Service, which has carved out an education mission for itself. By the year 2002, vows NPS, 60 percent of park visitors will make the transition "from simply enjoying the park to learning and understanding facts about its purpose and significance."
Even the State Department has an exaggerated sense of its mission. State grandiosely claims it plans to stabilize world population growth by the year 2020, but doesn't say how. (Handing out free condoms to Third World countries, perhaps?)
What this depressing survey shows is that many federal agencies have no concrete objectives and, as a consequence, no way to measure performance. This invites billions in waste and abuse of taxpayer dollars.
The blame for the government's appalling lack of direction rests not merely with the White House, or even with the agencies, but with Congress. If agencies don't know what their missions are, Congress should tell them. This is called "oversight," and it's a crucial function Congress has largely abandoned.
If Congress continues to fail its oversight responsibilities, agencies will continue to manufacture "strategic plans" to expand their budgets and bureaucracies.