SP2 dean analyzes what ails government programs

Many government programs designed to address societal ills fall short of their goals in sector after sector, and Richard J. Gelles, dean of the School of Social Policy & Practice, says these programs are predestined to fail because they create self-serving and self-protecting bureaucracies that keep them in business.


In his new book, “The Third Lie: Why Government Programs Don’t Work—and a Blueprint for Change,” Gelles demonstrates how each government program creates its own bureaucracy to monitor participation in the program. These bureaucracies, Gelles contends, become entrenched administrative entities with needs that supersede the needs of the people for whom the program was designed.

Gelles, who spent seven years writing the book, says the title stems from an old joke about the three biggest lies:

1.) Of course, I’ll respect you in the morning.

2.) The check is in the mail.

3.) I am from the government, and I am here to help you.

“The Third Lie” questions the efficacy of government programs such as Head Start—a national school readiness program. Gelles says there is no evidence to suggest it actually works. The book also calls Hawaii’s special education program ineffective. Gelles asserts that while the program’s costs have more than quadrupled since the early 1990s, there has been little positive impact for the children who receive its services.

The book, however, does not focus only on the down side of social programs.  Gelles also showcases how productive elements of effective programs can be incorporated into future social policies and programs. He highlights three government programs that he considers successful—the G.I. Bill, Social Security and Medicare—and says they all share three winning attributes:

1.) They provide for a specific population without a “means test” or some other type of complex targeting.

2.) They have a minimum eligibility test, for example, serving in the military or turning a certain age.

3.) Because of numbers 1 and 2, these three programs require relatively small bureaucracies to support them.

 “This book does not favor the right, nor the left,” Gelles says. “Yes, it will make people angry. But change comes from conflict. This book is an original, unorthodox analysis of what ails us as nation and how we might regain our economic, social and political health.”

Dean Gelles