The Veterans Affairs scandal. The Obamacare website launch. The response to Hurricane Katrina. Government seems to be getting more and more incompetent — and now, new data supports that perception. In the past three decades, the average number of epic fails has grown from 1.6 to 3.0 per year. What's going on here?

Paul Light, who studies governance at the Brookings Institution, identified and ranked the 41 most significant government failures between 2001 and 2014. He broke them down into two categories: failure of oversight (such as when an armed terrorist managed to board a plane in 2009) and failure of operations (such when the CDC failed to provide a sufficient supply of vaccines in 2004, prior to flu season). Light charted the failures above and was able to draw some general conclusions:

  • Government had four failures during Reagan's final two-and-a-half years (1.6 per year), five during George H. W. Bush's four years (1.2 per year), 14 during Clinton's eight years (1.8 per year), 25 during George W. Bush's eight years (3.1 per year), and 16 during Obama's first five-and-a-half years (2.9 per year).
  • Government had just 10 failures during the Bush administration's first term (2.5 per year), but 15 failures during the administration's second (3.8 per year). In turn, government had eight failures during the Obama administration's first term (2.0 per year), but matched its entire first-term total in just eighteen months of the second (5.3 per year).
  • The differences are just large enough to suggest that government may be somewhat more likely to fail during the last few years of a two-term presidency, perhaps because presidents start to lose focus, appointees begin to turn over, the other party becomes more assertive and the media becomes more aggressive.
  • Although conventional wisdom suggests that organizations are most vulnerable when workloads surge, more of the post-2001 government failures occurred during periods of steady demand than during times of surging demand—perhaps confirming the unconventional notion that surges sharpen organizational acuity, making them better prepared for crises.


Light argues that the cascade of government failures mirrors other trends over the past three decades, including the steady aging of the federal government's infrastructure and workforce, growing dependence on outside contractors, an ever-thickening hierarchy, dwindling funds, presidential disengagement and political posturing. And he doesn't have kind words for either Democrats or Republicans:

Both parties were responsible for the ongoing schoolyard brawl, though each contributed to government's rising tally of failures in its own way. For their part, Democrats did their best to ignore the slow decimation of government capacity, and refused to embrace the need for bold thinking on how to improve its performance.

For their part, Republicans exploited the Democratic cowardice by doing everything in their power to undermine performance. They stonewalled needed policy changes, and made implementation of new programs as difficult as possible; they cut budgets, staffs, and collateral capacity to a minimum, proving the adage that the logical extension of doing more with less is doing everything with nothing; [and] they used the presidential appointments process to decapitate key agencies.


To see a more detailed, interactive version of Paul Light's chart, visit the website of the Brookings Institution.