Government needs to be held accountable

Scott Reeder

 As the Transportation Safety Administration agent rummaged through my suitcase she picked up my tube of toothpaste, shook her head and said “no.”

The tube went sailing into a waste basket filled with bottles of suntan lotion, cans of shaving cream and other odds and ends the TSA considers too dangerous to bring aboard a jetliner.  

The tube of Colgate was 7.8 ounces rather than the requisite maximum of 3.4 ounces.

I felt like giving the TSA agent a piece of my mind.

But it’s not her fault.

She’s just doing her job – enforcing rules generated somewhere within the bowels of the TSA bureaucracy.

We all have those feelings sometime when confronted by a bureaucracy – and usually it’s not something as minor as a tube of toothpaste. You could be a small business owner trying to comply with a labor regulation, an elderly person confronted with a confusing tax form or just an ordinary citizen trying to comply with a complicated regulation.

Whether faced with a silly rule or just a desire to have a question answered, it’s aggravating not knowing where to turn.

And that goes to the heart of a problem within big government – a lack of accountability.

Who do you blame? Where do you bring solutions? How do you ensure greater responsiveness?

It’s a lot more significant than $5.92 tube of toothpaste.

Even legislators are frustrated by the bureaucracy. The multiple layers of government become worse when officials add rules and regulations that don’t quite mesh with one another.

Just last week, 133 members of the U.S. House of Representatives wrote the TSA to express concern about allowing passengers to start carrying pocket knives aboard a passenger aircraft. That’s right – TSA recently passed a rule allowing travelers to tote knives aboard a plane. John Pistole, the head of TSA, shrugged off those concerns and said passengers can begin carrying knives later this month.

It would seem a reasonable concern. After all, airplanes have been hijacked by men with knives – but never by one wielding a tube of toothpaste. 

Government agencies are replete with examples like these, and for decades, elected officials, political scientists, journalists and others have tried to devise ways to make the bureaucracy more navigable and accountable to those the taxpayers fund it - those the government is meant to serve.

On the accountability front, one widely heralded move was to have auditors routinely audit the bureaucracy and root out waste, fraud and abuse.

But the results have been mixed.

For example, Illinois Auditor General Bill Holland recently conducted an audit of the state’s public-funded universities.

About half of the findings were also cited in previous audits.

Often the findings aren’t exciting – but they are important.

For example the auditor general found that Chicago State University had $18.6 million sitting in a bank account – without enough insurance to cover the deposit. The auditor told school officials they needed to make sure the full deposit was fully insured.

Each audit finding is intended to make sure government is run well.  

“In the real world, people would be losing their jobs if they ignored an auditor’s finding,” said state Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo. “But once you enter that vortex called state government, it doesn’t work that way. There is absolutely no accountability or consequences for not correcting problems. Nothing aggravates me more. The reason there is no accountability is they know, no one will lose their job if they just it ignore it.”

University trustees, our governor and other leaders within government need to show those within their bureaucracies that accountability is essential.

Jobs should be on the line.

A bureaucracy is like a tube of toothpaste – it needs to be squeezed hard so nothing goes to waste.

 Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse reporter and the journalist in residence at the Illinois Policy Institute. He can be reached at Readers can subscribe to his free political newsletter by going to ILNEWS.ORG or follow his work on Twitter @scottreeder