Since Ancient Rome, the pattern has been the same. Politicians make promises, people believe and vote them in and then things get fuzzy. It seems that politicians live in a different world. For politicians in Washington, that world has almost unlimited resources with no accountability.
The problem is on both sides of the aisle. Republicans perennially run on a platform of fiscal discipline and then show little. Democrats strive to support the underprivileged, but often create unintended consequences.
Consider the newly re-elected Barney Frank. For the past six years, Frank's full-time job has been to ensure the safety and solvency of the U.S. banking system. But ideological decisions to promote low-income home loans produced disastrous consequences. In 2003, Barney said that his critics "conjure up the possibility of serious financial losses to the Treasury, which I do not see." He continued, "I want to roll the dice a little bit more in this situation."
How many trillions of dollars were lost on that roll? And what was his punishment? Unlimited resources with no accountability.
Imagine the impact if every politician was held publicly accountable for his performance. Many see this as an impossible task; they argue that politicians have always behaved this way. But holding politicians accountable is very possible in today's information age.
Virtually all successful organizations hold managers and employees accountable for performance. The type of business -- for profit, not-for-profit -- or industry doesn't matter. The standard formula is straightforward and easy to apply to our congressional leaders.
But before considering how to assess performance, let's define
will assess performance. Here are two paradigms. The first is the Congressional Budget Office model. The CBO is an independent organization responsible for assessing the financial impact of government programs. It is quite possible to build a similar government-sponsored organization, but shift the focus from financial capital to human capital. This organization would have to be funded by Congress. With a new class entering Congress, now -- before the members learn how to evade accountability -- would be an ideal time to build it. Eric Cantor, are you listening?
If Congress won't step up -- and it probably won't -- go private. Think of this paradigm as the J.D. Powers model. This can get going right away. J.D. Powers can assess anything -- cell phone service, Southern Arizona Indian Casinos (really!) or toasters. Could a similar external company or non-partisan institute assess representative performance? Without question. These organizations conduct the annual appraisal. Creating the assessment requires a few simple steps.
Step 1: Define the Role
The root cause of our accountability deficit is that few know what congressional representatives or committee chairpersons are supposed to do. Let's fix that first.
For CEOs, sales reps, restaurant managers and real estate agents, the ultimate goal is clear and measurable. For corporate attorneys and nurses it's not. Congress falls into the latter category -- a single, measure of performance is unclear. When that is the case, we must define and assess "major activities."
Major activities are the four or five most important things a representative must do extraordinarily well. Why not 10 or 15? Because people with too many "priorities" often fail. Consider Ronald Reagan. Love him or hate him, Reagan got things done. His answers to questions seemed to invariably return to three themes (i.e., major activities): smaller government, lower taxes and stronger defense.
What is a reasonable major activity for congressional representatives? One may be to sponsor meaningful legislation (vs. National Tree Leaf Day) that becomes law. "Meaningful" will need to be operationalized by a non-partisan panel. High performers on this activity have been Senators John McCain and the late Ted Kennedy. Another major activity might be to improve the efficiency of the federal government -- if only ...
Step 2: Publicize All Commitments
When candidates believe their commitments will be publicly assessed, they will be more thoughtful before making promises. As governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, a former business leader, kept his 21 promises with him and checked off each throughout his tenure. A non-partisan panel could search congressional representatives' speeches and writings to identify the top 10 commitments.
Step 3: Create a Corruption Index
Both good and bad behavior must be assessed.
publishes an annual Corruption Perceptions Index to rank countries according to "the degree to which corruption is perceived to exist among public officials and politicians." The organization defines corruption as "the abuse of entrusted power for private gain." This index can be modified to assess individual politicians.
Alternatively, corruption measures may be gathered from the United Nations Development Program's Publication, "A Users Guide to Measuring Corruption."
Step 4: Appraise Performance Annually
Sales managers in most companies are assessed annually on three performance categories: 1) standard financial and customer metrics, 2) location-specific commitments, and 3) corporate values.
Let's use the corporate model with our new representatives. The annual appraisal will have three sections: 1) performance on each major activity, 2) percentage of campaign promises delivered, and 3) corruption. After scoring each representative on each major activity, rank order representatives (i.e., the 10 best- and worst-performing members for drafting meaningful legislation). Next, rank order on percentage of promises delivered. Finally, rate and rank order politicians on the corruption index. The corruption rating should be a five-year rolling average score.
If ever there was a time to begin holding Washington accountable, that time is now. Congress is loaded with idealistic freshman looking to change the system. It's time to put up or shut up.