Government’s New Mission: To Boldly Go -- Nowhere

Posted: Nov 15, 2010 12:01 AM

The all-time best government employee has to be Captain James T. Kirk, who, while commanding the Starship Enterprise, saved the universe from certain destruction each week.  His motto was simple:”to boldly go where no man has gone before.”  Lately, our federal government is echoing a much different philosophy.  Federal agencies seem to stray from their primary mission, finding new and increasingly mediocre tasks to perform.  They are boldly going nowhere.

Look no further than our once proud space agency.  NASA, for example, has strayed so far from its core mission that, just last month, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, stated that his top priority was Muslim outreach. Putting another man on the moon or launching satellites to discover life on another planet is too difficult and no longer their top priority.  Instead, our space agency wanted to spend time, energy, and federal dollars reaching out to Muslims and the senior NASA leaders plan trips, not to outer space, but on overseas travel  to Saudi Arabia.

Not too long ago, space travel and exploration was the explicit mission of NASA and the agency captured the imagination of all Americans and the world by doing great things.  In fact, NASA’s derring-do inspired Gene Roddenberry to create the proto-typical NASA man, Captain Kirk.  . And so, Americans, in the 60s, 70s and 80s eagerly anticipated seeing NASA rockets and astronauts blasting into space.

But, since 1993, when NASA SEWP began selling PCs, the nation has seen the inspirational mission of the agency decline and the core mission erode to the point where large numbers of its employees have been diverted to selling computers and office supplies or religious outreach.  This is mission creep on a spectacular scale.  How sad is that?  NASA has shifted their attention from “boldly going” in favor of a strange mixture of new missions, moving, at warp speed, in the wrong direction.

Nor is NASA the only federal agency that seems to be lost in space.  Mission-scope creep, familiar to many within the Washington area, is little known outside the Beltway, but is the cause for much of the federal government’s ancillary spending.  Within government agencies, the core mission is often complicated and difficult to achieve.  Over time, some federal agencies have shifted their employee’s efforts to areas that, while personally rewarding to federal employees, do little to advance the agency’s core mission.

The National Institute of Health, whose primary mission is biomedical and health-related research, recently  received approval from OMB for its third Chief Information Officer Solutions and Partners (CIOSP) government-wide acquisition contract, which allows NIH to sell technology to other government agencies.  With divergences such as these from the agency’s core mission, it should come as no surprise that NIH has grown from 140 employees in 1930 to over 20,000 employees in 2010.

Sadly, many federal agencies have lost sight of their primary objectives, at great cost to the American taxpayer and always requiring an explosive growth in the size of government.  At the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), our nation has seen a decline in the number of pharmaceuticals approved annually, but an increase in the number of government employees and an increase in the time and funding spent on Administrivia.

Just recently, the FDA has devoted enormous employee resources and millions of taxpayer dollars to their version of American Idol, where thousands of Americans are polled and ultimately asked to judge and select finalists for their efforts to redesign cigarette labels.  Is it any wonder that the FDA budget has increased in just two years from $2 Billion in 2008 to $3.2B in 2010 ?

The 112th Congress will see a change in the committee chairmanships in the House.  With the change comes the charge from the American people to ensure a return to fiscal sanity.  But, house chairman have another chance to perform a service for the American people.  In the process of asserting fiscal discipline on out-of-control federal spending, they can help federal agencies return to their core competencies.

Lassoing in federal agency excesses will be difficult and will require the line-by-line budget review that most folks on Capitol Hill like to talk about, but few, if any, have ever done.  Ferreting out pockets of waste, forcing agencies back to their core missions will be one of the hardest challenges that the 112th congress will face.  But if they do the hard work that needs doing, and if congress is able to succeed, the federal budget, the government agencies and our nation will be all the richer for it.