The Huge Voter Issue Democrats are Ignoring | Opinion

The Democratic convention reveals that the Biden-Harris ticket will try to appeal to voters with progressive promises dealing with racial disparities, healthcare, and the environment. They hope to convince voters that their leadership will be steady and sane, not mercurial and bombastic.

But the expansive Democratic platform largely ignores one issue that most voters care about: the need to overhaul government. Public demand for "very major reform" of government has increased dramatically in recent decades—from 37 percent in 1997 to over 60 percent in 2018. A 2019 survey found that 66 percent of Americans "think major structural changes are needed to the U.S. system of government."

The federal government is Americans' "least favorite company." In fact, of 25 industries rated in a 2019 Gallup poll, the federal government was #24. Doctors, nurses, teachers, small business all complain about bureaucratic overload. Infrastructure projects are stalled by red tape delays. Dealing with COVID has exposed the impossibility of complying with rigid dictates—and the costs of government's failure to perform.

Democrats today seem to think that making government work better is somehow inconsistent with a progressive agenda. In fact, however, the Democrats' activist agenda may not be credible unless it is packaged with a practical vision to make government work better. As they painfully discovered with the failed launch of the Obamacare website, the activist agenda isn't even possible unless it can deliver.

Every successful Democratic candidate since 1976 has presented voters with a vision for government overhaul. Jimmy Carter promised to "reorganize a Federal Government which has grown more preoccupied with its own bureaucratic needs than with those of the people." Bill Clinton and AL Gore promised "a third way" and launched a reinventing government initiative, focused on a "government that works better and costs less." Barack Obama promised "Change we can believe in." Farther back in history, the progressive movement was grounded in a vision for good governmen—with civil service and other reforms, as well as regulatory oversight, to supplant laissez-faire.

The Democratic party seems to have forgotten this history. In 2016, Hillary Clinton had no focus on reforming government and ceded the issue to Donald Trump, who promised to "Drain the swamp." In the Democratic primary debates this year, there was not one question about how to make government work better.

Voters are thus confronted with a Manichean choice—either the Republican vision of de-regulation, or the Democratic vision of a bigger version of the status quo. Presenting this choice to voters didn't work well for Hillary Clinton, and it misses the opportunity to frame the ways that government could be overhauled to work more effectively and to relieve the burden of unnecessary red tape.

It also ignores what citizens want—not big promises, but practical results. An analysis by McKinsey found that 67 percent of citizens' trust in government comes from their experience with government programs. Better government results lead to more government trust. The recent furor over the Postal Service, the government program with a longer life than any other, shows that citizens care most fundamentally about a government that fundamentally works. On the other hand, overpromising but underdelivering is a prescription for political disaster.

Recently, 100 leading citizens, including former governors, think tank heads, and experts in different fields, signed a petition calling for "spring cleaning commissions" to propose simplified structures for government programs. This initiative (with which we are involved) focuses on reforming the operating systems of public programs, not getting rid of the programs. These reforms include reducing red tape burdens on teachers and doctors, creating practical accountability for police and other public employees, and streamlining permitting so that infrastructure projects can get started.

Overhauling how government works could unleash enormous resources for progressive reforms. Excessive bureaucracy is ruinously expensive. Thirty percent of the healthcare dollar goes to administration—that's about $1 trillion, or $1 million per physician. Almost half the states now have more non-instructional personnel than teachers. This overhead is not only a crushing economic burden. It robs the very soul of government and its relationship with citizens.

Reports of Donald Trump's political death may be exaggerated. Not having a vision for fixing government could be politically risky for Democrats, because the evidence is clear: Most Americans want government to change. Leading experts also believe the legacy bureaucracies of government are more than overdue for a major overhaul. Shouldn't voters have a chance to weigh competing visions for how government can work better?

Donald F. Kettl is Sid Richardson Professor at University of Texas LBJ School. He is also a nonresident senior fellow at the Volcker Alliance, the Brookings Institution and the Partnership for Public Service. Philip K. Howard is an Attorney and Author. He is Founder of Campaign for Common Good.

The views expressed in this article are the authors' own.